Chinese mobile operator hedges bets with Java
China Unicom plans to distribute mobile phone downloads using a version of Java, a deal that could influence how other carriers sell games, ring tones or business applications.
In the past, the Chinese company has used Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) software to deliver over-the-air downloads to subscribers. As a major carrier, it has been one of the largest feathers in the cap of BREW creator and licenser Qualcomm.
But on Monday, China Unicom - which uses CDMA as opposed to the more popular GSM mobile standard - said it plans to end that exclusive arrangement and start selling downloads that use a version of Sun Microsystems' rival Java software language for mobile phones, Java2 Micro Edition (J2ME). The wireless carrier licensed the J2ME technology from Motorola division 4thPass.
The deal is an example of how carriers who once relied on BREW exclusively to sell games, ring tones and other downloads are adding J2ME into the mix, according to Mazin Ramadan, CEO of 4th Pass.
Most major mobile operators have turned to selling downloads in an attempt to recoup some of the revenue lost through an ongoing price war in calling services, their main product.
While BREW-based downloads are considered by the wireless industry to be of a higher quality than those based on Sun's technology, it's estimated that J2ME developers outnumber BREW developers by at least 5-to-1. As a result, there are many more J2ME-based games available for wireless companies to sell.
"It doesn't make sense to ignore J2ME," Ramadan said.
Because it's the third-largest carrier in the world, China Unicom's decision to exploit both download technologies will likely "influence others" to do the same, according to Ramadan.
South Korean company KT Freetel was once an exclusive BREW user but it's being forced by a government decision to add Java into its line-up. In addition, US carrier Verizon Wireless is among the largest remaining BREW-only cellular service providers in the world.
Sun considers BREW competition to J2ME, because it and San Diego-based Qualcomm target the same handsets and makers of infrastructure for cellular networks. However, Qualcomm spokeswoman Allison Graves said on Monday that the two technologies are complementary.
She said China Unicom used BREW first, because "it was the quickest to market for them", and its decision is "in line with what we've known all along were China Unicom's plans".
Ben Charny writes for CNET News.com.