Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems, IBM and several other companies have joined a software plan that uses Java to link cell phones and servers while keeping Microsoft out of the picture.
The move, which was announced Tuesday, is the second phase of a plan that No. 1 cell phone maker Nokia began in November to standardise
how cell phones and other mobile devices connect to the Internet. Many telecommunications and phone companies supported the first phase; now the plan has expanded to include all the top makers of software that runs Java programs on servers.
If the effort succeeds, programmers writing server software won't need to worry about whether the person tapping into it is using a cell phone, a handheld computer or a desktop PC.
"The consensus now is we need a single infrastructure that will be multichannel," said Eric Stahl, senior product-marketing manager at BEA Systems, the top Java server software company.
The effort is guaranteed to repel Microsoft, which shuns Java and would prefer companies to write software that works directly with Windows. If the plan succeeds, Microsoft could be hampered in its protracted efforts to extend its desktop stronghold into servers and gadgets.
But the battle is only in its initial stages. Cell phone users have shown little interest thus far in using their phones to connect to the Internet.
Microsoft representatives weren't available for comment on Tuesday.
The group plans to expand the capabilities of Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), the software many servers use to run Internet applications such as e-commerce "shopping carts." The idea is to assemble some of the existing standards that mobile devices use for communication and presenting information and then make sure J2EE servers use those standards, Stahl said.
The alliance hasn't yet announced which standards will be supported in J2EE, but candidates include XHTML for displaying Web pages on small wireless devices, SyncML for synchronising information between mobile devices and other computing equipment, and version 2.0 of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) to tap into Internet services. Most significant, perhaps, is support for Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), which carriers hope will mean new revenue as people send video messages or email documents with cell phones.
The J2EE extension needs a standard for authenticating people's digital identity, and the Liberty Alliance Project is a leading contender, Stahl said.
J2EE runs on numerous servers, from multimillion-dollar IBM mainframes and Sun Unix servers to comparatively inexpensive Intel servers running Microsoft Windows. Theoretically, programs written for J2EE can run on any of these systems without having to be changed.
Tuesday's move doesn't outflank Microsoft's .Net initiative, but it does apply some pressure. Sun's Java has become an established way to run software on servers, but Microsoft leapfrogged Sun with its Web services plan. Sun and its allies now are trying to catch up, building full support for Web services standards into the next edition of J2EE, version 1.4.
But Tuesday's move indicates that the Java camp has retaken some of the initiative. And with all the biggest J2EE application server companies on board -- BEA, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun, Borland and Oracle -- the challenge will be in establishing and implementing the new standard, not in making sure the right partners are involved.
The allies hope the new wireless standard will be incorporated into the next big version of J2EE, 1.4, said Rich Green, general manager of Sun's Java software group. The main focus for 1.4 thus far has been incorporating Web services standards, and 1.4 is due out in late 2002 or early 2003, he said.
Tuesday's effort will help to blur the line between different computing devices, especially as cell phones get more processing horsepower and high-speed "broadband" connections gradually become available for wireless Internet connections.
"There are new classes of devices, ones in which the question of whether it should be wireless or wireline is irrelevant," said Jon Prial, IBM vice president of marketing and strategy. "Today what people are focused on is phones, but tomorrow it will be phones connected to a broadband Internet connection."
The companies also hope the alliance's project will diminish the hurdles imposed by today's world of multiple standards, Stahl said.
American wireless carriers AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless and Japan's NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone, which is the largest carrier in Europe, are all part of the initiative, according to a Nokia representative.
All these carriers use a cell phone network based on a standard called GSM, or global system for mobile communications. About 75 percent of the world's carriers use GSM. Another phone standard, called code division multiple access or CDMA, is used in about 15 percent to 20 percent of the world's phone networks.
The initiative is focusing on GSM carriers for now, Stahl said, but he didn't rule out participation by CDMA carriers, such as SK Telecom in South Korea.
Some of the standards the initiative is working on are just now being embraced by the industry. Multimedia messaging services are still at least a year off, but carriers have already debuted Java phones.
Nextel Communications already offers Java phones to US customers. Sprint intends to introduce Java phones by the end of next year.
AT&T Wireless is investigating whether to offer phones that use Java, with an eye on possibly introducing a service within the next couple of years, spokesman Ritch Blasi said.
Nokia has also made a heavy commitment to Java. It plans to manufacture 100 million Java phones next year, for example, said Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak.
Nokia's first US-based Java phone, the Nokia 9290 Communicator, is due in spring 2002. The phone is also the first combination personal digital assistant and cell phone created by Nokia. A version of the phone is already on sale in Europe.
Nowak said that cell phone users in Europe and Asia will likely be the first to see new Nokia products that result from the initiative. The company plans to introduce its new video phone, the Nokia 7650, by June 2002 on those continents.
"Ít makes sense right now to move in this direction," he said.
If it moves, we cover it. See ZDNet UK's Mobile Technology News Section for the latest news, reviews and price checks on mobile phones, PDAs, notebook computers and anything else you can take away.Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the Telecoms forum. Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.