LAS VEGAS -- With the world's three largest mobile phone suppliers readying Java-enabled handsets for release as early as the first half of 2001, Java looks set to make inroads into the red-hot wireless arena.
Once mobile phones incorporate Java, users will be able to customize and personalize their handsets as they wish by downloading applications, company officials said.
Motorola and Nokia are leading the way. Schaumburg, Ill., Motorola showed off a handset featuring Java designed for its iDen -- integrated digital enhanced network -- mobile phone standard used by operators such as Nextel Communications. The iDen handset is scheduled to ship early next year, and by 2002 all Motorola phones could feature Java, said Rajiv Mehta, manager of strategic marketing at Motorola's iDen Subscriber Group.
Motorola later plans to incorporate Java in its other handsets, including those for GSM networks, Mehta added. GSM is the world's most widely deployed mobile network technology.
Nokia, meanwhile, also expects to ship its first Java-enabled handsets in next year's first half, said Pekka Isosomppi, communications manager at the Espoo, Finland company. The first Nokia handsets featuring Java are likely to be high-end models such as the company's 9110 Communicator model, he added.
Several Japanese handset makers are also readying Java handsets designed for NTT DoCoMo's I-mode, the world's largest mobile Internet service. The first Java-enabled I-mode handsets are expected to roll out over the next few months.
With downloadable Java applications, users will be able to customize and personalize their handsets according to individual needs.
"We see an analogy with the Palm model," said Motorola's Mehta, referring to the many applications that independent software developers have made available for handheld devices based on the Palm OS. "Customizing the handset by downloading applications to it is a real benefit."
Another advantage for the user: there is no need to buy a new phone every time a new feature comes out. "Just update the software," Mehta said.
"Java is graphical and dynamic. It will get more users than Wireless Application Protocol, because WAP is difficult to use," said Gerry Purdy, president and CEO at consulting company Mobile Insights.
Stockholm L.M. Ericsson, meanwhile, is taking a more "conservative position" on adding Java to its handsets, said Skip Bryan, director of technology marketing for Ericsson in the U.S.
Nevertheless, Ericsson is readying an advanced handset based on Symbian Ltd.'s Quark reference platform that will incorporate Java, Bryan said, although the company has yet to commit to a shipping date for the product.
"We are paranoid about crashing phones," Bryan said. "Adding features to a phone is a dilemma. Can we do it over the air without an hacker coming in?"
Motorola's handsets will feature J2ME -- Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition -- a compact version of Java, the platform independent programming language developed by Sun. The handsets will have between 600K bytes and 700K bytes of additional flash memory to store applications, Mehta said.
Some analysts, however, think that the vendors are unlikely to be able to agree on using a standardized flavor of Java. Such a scenario could well lead to a fragmented market for applications, they believe.
"Java will only be pure on a particular manufacturer's line. WAP is not consistent, and Java won't be either," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile research at Gartner Group.
WAP was promoted as being identical on every phone, but instead all handset makers have made their own add-ons, Dulaney said. Java is facing the same fate, according to the Gartner analyst who doubts that a single Java application will even work on all phones made by one manufacturer. "One Java application could work on all Motorola phones if they all had the same specifications, they won't," Dulaney said.
He also predicts Java phones won't be cheap. "It takes more horsepower to run applications. That will make the handset more expensive," Dulaney said.
Nokia's Isosomppi, however, said that mobile phones featuring Java should not be more expensive than today's handsets. "There will be no net cost effects," he said, apart from the additional flash memory needed to store the applications.
Motorola and Nokia say they are working with the Java community to get applications developed for mobile phones. Motorola has made a developer tool kit available on its Web site.
It remains unclear what kind of Java applications -- except for ever-present games -- will be developed for mobile phones. "We don't know yet", Mehta said, adding that simple applications could come in the form of a calculator or a clock.
"It will be an open-source phone," he added.