July 14, 2005 12:20 PM PDT

'Write once, run anywhere' not working for phones

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standard for downloading software onto phones, one that would allow a single version of any application, be it a three-dimensional game or instant messaging, to work on any phone.

Fragmentation issues surfaced quickly. The initial version of MIDP had a limited set of built-in features, so if handset makers wanted to, for instance, add 3D gaming, they had to build their own way of doing so into the handset. So a 3D game built to run on, say, a handset made by Motorola, wouldn't operate appropriately on a handset from Nokia.

Meanwhile, hardware makers were busy producing cell phones that were like snowflakes: No two were alike. Some had huge screens and tiny dial pads, others just the opposite. Application makers have had to account for the nuances or risk severely limiting the reach of their products.

Essentially, that means developers have had to do something different to their software to fit each different phone. Writing multiple versions of software can mean adding months of additional work on a program.

"It can take up to nine months to deploy an entertainment application," said Craig Hayman, vice president of carrier marketing at IBM. "But that's the duration of a cell phone in this market."

Sun, Nokia and others are still trying to deal with the issue. MIDP is now on its second version, one that accounts for just about any feature customers might want on a handset, so there's less of a need for proprietary software, Chu said.

There's also a movement afoot to standardize the ways in which different features on phones work together, Chu said. The proposed standard, known as MSA, or Mobile Service Architecture, is meant as an adjunct to MIDP, according to the handset makers and carriers that support the idea.

But don't expect the problems to go away anytime soon.

"You can look at (MIDP) as a problem, or at the incredible progress so far," said Jason Guesman, vice president of Seven, a Redwood City, Calif., wireless messaging specialist that competes with the likes of Research in Motion and Good Technology. "It's amazing what you can do now, thanks to Java, with a $99 handset. But write once, run anywhere isn't close."

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