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Weekly Column

The ABBA Effect: Java May Be the Future of Mobile Communications, But That Future May Be Later Than Expected

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

This week, Sun Microsystems held its Java One developers' conference in San Francisco and the buzz was all about putting the Java language in embedded processors running devices like mobile phones and pagers. Forget the dot-com meltdown, this show was hopping with hundreds of new companies, many of them aimed at helping Java take over the mobile phone business. Nokia, the biggest cellphone maker of all, was a prominent co-sponsor of the show. Motorola, the number two cellphone company, was there in force, too. From the look of things, we can expect Java to be running our phones real soon now, right? Probably not. Java is great, but its real impact in the mobile market is at least two years away.

I am not here to bury Java but to praise it. But even praise ought to be realistic.

This is Sun's second try at selling this idea. The first try was a couple years ago with a Java-based technology called Jini that was supposed to make everything network-aware. And I mean EVERYTHING, since the Jini application mentioned over and over by Sun CEO Scott McNealy was a little Jini servlet that would live in the left front brake pads on your car of the future. When the pads approached their wear limits, McNealy liked to say, the servlet would inform the car network which would inform the driver and simultaneously put out word over the Internet to the supply chain that a couple more brake pads should be manufactured, please. Jini was going to be the basis of a just-in-time economy.

Only it didn't happen. In part that is because, as I pointed out in this column two years ago, Jini wouldn't scale to 100 million cars with 800 million brake pads. That fact, which worried Sun engineers a lot, was apparently lost on the Sun marketing department. Sun's new take on the problem is called Jxta, and for all I know, it is the answer to an embedded engineer's every dream. Jxta might do what Jini did not. But what is that? What will Jxta do?

One of the bigshots speaking at Java One was the CEO of Nokia, who predicted that by 2003 his company would sell 100 million Java-enabled cellphones. As an example of what all that Java would do to make the world a better place, he cited the custom ring tone industry, which is apparently supporting much of the Scandinavian economy. In case you've missed yet another tectonic shift and don't know about custom ring tones, that is the ability to make your phone play "Eleanor Rigby" when someone calls. Users pay to download new tones and some of the money they pay -� in this example -� goes straight to Yoko Ono. And according to the guy from Nokia, the ring tone business is big business, with some countries recording higher ring tone sales than all advertising sales on their national television networks.

Is it just me, or does this ring tone thing seem frivolous? In an economic downturn, which expense is eliminated first at your house, cable TV or ring tones? That's what I figured. I call this ring tone thing the ABBA Effect, named for the Swedish singing group that was, at one point, a bigger contributor than Volvo to Sweden's balance of payments. The ABBA Effect mistakes a fad for a long-term trend. We could just as well have called it the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Effect, but that's too many words.

The ABBA Effect fools people who are otherwise very smart. Back in the late 1970s, it affected IBM when the company converted mainframe rentals to sales and convinced itself that the bubble of income from those conversions would be permanent. This, more than Microsoft, caused IBM's problems in the 1990s. The ABBA Effect led all those European telcos to overbid for Third Generation mobile phone licenses last year, crippling the companies for year to come.

What's sad here is that ring tones are so far the most prominent manifestation of Java phone technology. The Japanese love them, too. But this, too, shall pass. The real benefits of Java are probably a couple years out. Right now the phones don't have enough memory to hold more than the simplest applications. The NTT DoCoMo iAppli Java phones, for example, have 10 kilobytes of memory available to hold applications or applets. How much program can you write in 10K? A 10K memory space makes ring tones look brilliant. And while this problem will be eventually solved by the inexorable grinding of Moore's Law, it will probably get worse before it gets better. This is because developers in a hurry to reach the market will license code libraries from other developers and doing so always results in bigger, not smaller, code. We could just compress that code and expand it as needed, of course, except the Java J2ME spec, which is at the bottom of all this, does not allow compression.

Phones have to get smarter and have bigger memories before Java will achieve what's possible. And that will happen, but not for another couple years. But even then, we still won't have servers in our brake pads. Sorry Scott.

At this point, I am supposed to point out that I don't own shares in Sun, Nokia, or any of the other companies I mentioned here or their competitors. A couple readers got upset recently when they thought I was the lackey of another company I wrote about -� Eleven Engineering, home of the SPIKE wireless networking technology. Sorry, I'm too ornery to be a lackey. I own no shares in Eleven and have received no compensation from them of any sort at any time. If they grandly called me an "adviser" it means I have gone to lunch with the CEO and given him advice (also lunch -� I paid). Talking to executives and eating lunch and giving occasional bits of advice is how I do my job as a reporter. It's how I get my stories. It's how every reporter I know gets his stories and will continue to be my modus operandi until my singing career kicks in.

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