Bringing Mobility to the Table

Java mobile development is a hot topic in the IT industry these days, as evidenced by considerable discussion at the 2006 Java Technology Roundtable. Here's a highlight from the event.

A unique highlight of the 2006 Java Technology Roundtable, which was held during the week of JavaOne in San Francisco, was discussion of development issues in the mobile device industry. Among the panel of distinguished experts and thought leaders was John Bostrom, chief Java architect at Nokia. Roundtables in prior years didn't include a participant from the mobile sector of the industry, and Bostrom's participation in the 2006 version clearly reflects the vibrant state of the mobile application development space in general as well as the Java mobile development space, in particular. Mobility was touched on a few times during the discussion, but deep into the event the panel's moderator, Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun Microsystems, invited Bostrom to kick off a more detailed discussion of issues regarding the Java ME platform, innovation for mobile devices, and the impact that network operators have on that innovation.

Simon Phipps: Earlier on, Jon made a brave and laudable attempt to drag the conversation into talking about Java ME.

Larry Cable: We beat him down.

Jon Bostrom: I feel like things are stacked against me here.

Cable: I'm still waiting for the killer app, damn you.

Phipps: That is the question that I want to ask. I've sat through many interesting presentations at JavaOne over many years now, telling me that next year is the year of mobile Java. And, well, is next year the year of mobile Java? If so, how is it going to happen? If not, why not? And do we really have to have Web services on phones? Jon, do you want to kick us off?

Bostrom: I'll kick it off. Our marketing guys have come up with a great buzz phrase that will stir everybody up, and it's: "mobile Java as the remote control for Web 2.0." So think about that for just a while.

Mike Milinkovich: It sounds like the marketing people are on the edge.

Mike Milinkovich, Eclipse Foundation: "It sounds like the [Nokia] marketing people are on the edge."   Larry Cable, BEA: "I'm still waiting for the killer app, damn you."

Bostrom: As I pointed out just a little bit earlier, mobile Java has always been sneered at a little bit. You know, it's not a real VM, it's on the CLDC stuff, it's for games, and it's for toys. But you know we have taken some big evolutionary steps [with] the processing power and the community power that you get now because mobile devices when they start to connect—we've now got mobile devices that have five radios in them; they can connect by a Bluetooth, they can connect by a WiFi, they can connect by a GSM or a CPMA—they are the community at the edge.

And what's been holding us back is that the form of Java that we've had has been so crippled that we haven't been able to innovate, especially on the connectivity stuff. And again, it's partly because we haven't been able to stand—you know, Bill Joyce is talking about standing on the shoulders of giants—and we haven't been able to do that on the mobile because every time somebody wanted to build something they had to build from the ground up, and this middleware structure starts to change that, where you can start to make interesting things.

Jon Bostrum
Jon Bostrom, Nokia: "Our marketing guys have come up with a great buzz phrase: 'mobile Java as the remote control for Web 2.0.'"
I'll leave it by saying one of the things that we've actually got built up now that we're demoing is this ability to make mobile mashups, where in this piece of Java middleware you make a mashup that talks to a little bit of Google, a little bit of Yahoo, and a little bit of Flickr, and then you stick a little simple API on that so that anybody sitting up on top can write to that. And they don't have to understand about the network doing the caching because as hard as it is from servers and PCs, this network caching, error-handling paradigm from a mobile device is much harder because you have multiple networks, all of them are unreliable, and you never know what's going to happen. So this ability to start layering that stuff on there is going to make a huge difference, and we're going to see cool stuff popping out of there when you give the developers these capabilities.

Tim Bray: Let me follow on that a little bit. [Holding up a device] This is the Savaje thing, and they claim to have JSR 209 in here—I haven't seen [it] yet—which gives you quite a bit of Swing, really quite a bit of Swing, and so that might help too in terms of being able to build that infrastructure up.

Tim Bray
Tim Bray, Sun Microsystems: "If the mobile operators would ? let anybody run anything on the network, an explosion of wonderful things would happen."
But you know what worries me, is we were actually talking with a bunch of analysts before I came over here, and we had a hearty laugh together when I said, "Well, suppose the mobile operator decided to be open and intelligent about this." And everybody dissolved in hilarious laughter. You know it seems to me to be so painfully obvious that if the mobile operators would tear down the walls of the garden and sort of let anybody run anything on the network and concentrate on their core competencies and bandwith and billing, that an explosion of wonderful things would happen.

Cable: Yes!

Frank Cohen: It might be like the Internet.

Bray: Yeah! Wouldn't that be nice.

Phipps: So, is that the only problem?

Bray: I think it's the biggest problem.

Milinkovich: It's a huge problem.

Cable: It's a huge problem. It's not what runs on the forward piece.

Phipps: But how many people at the table have got customers who are asking to be able to let their enterprise applications connect to their employees' cell phones?

Cohen: They don't phrase it in that way. No, what they do phrase is "what are your client-side requirements?"

Ted Farrell: I think they also assume it can't be done because it's such a closed community.

Bob Blainey: Yeah, I was going to make the same comment. As long as that community is a ghetto of ME developers I think it's going to be hard to get the kind of momentum and the kind of commonality it takes to get there. I think following up on Jon's comment about the evolving capabilities of the phones, I think when the mobile platform is not some alien thing that has to be subsetted anymore and has special case APIs and is very much the same as the SE platform, that's when we'll get a lot more momentum from the developer side; although, I don't disagree with opening up the network.

Ari Zilka: I would have wagered against anyone here that Flickr could have been the killer app for the phone. I mean the camera's in the phone, it's sticky, it's compelling, it's you and your friends around the world, the Internet, everything seems perfect for it, and it doesn't quite happen yet, and I don't know why.

Phipps: There's a company trying very hard to make that actually happen.

Bray: Well, we do know why. It's because Flickr is an open platform, and the mobile network operators require that they own the customer.

Phipps: And they own the photo app and they won't let you run a photo app to be in one of theirs.

Sam Pullara: To be completely unfair, there actually is a killer app for the phone and it's e-mail, and there's only one provider that has it.

Phipps: Actually there is another killer app for the phone, which is the true killer app: Voice over IP.

Pullara: Yeah, that's pretty good too.

Milinkovich: That could be the other way to get around the operators, too.

Phipps: Yes, if they let you run it. 

Bray: Yes, that's why they don't want you to run it.

Bostrom: And that's, again, as the mobile platform opens up its radio stack, and we get more and more devices—and Nokia's already shipping phones that have WiFi on them and connects transparently. I've got a Voice over IP client on my phone that I use all the time. But I would say there is another set of killer apps, depending on who you are, and that's video. No matter where I go I like to watch the morning news. I've got in my home set up a DVR set up that I built, and I run that through a Web service called Orb, and when I'm in Helsinki at five o'clock in the afternoon I can watch my morning news coming out of my house on my phone and see what's going on in Reno. And that kind of thing is powerful when it's put there. So I think there are a bunch of those things that, again, once we have a structure in the phone that lets developers enable their own apps so they don't have to write all this infrastructure, they don't have to write all the plumbing and stuff, then those kinds of things will start happening. People will start to use them. You'll video enable your address book and the open part of that, is really, we're just on the brink of opening that up.