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Start Your Engines: Mobile Application Development : Page 5

A fifth of the world's population will soon have a mobile device and access to the Internet. With that many potential users, is an explosion of mobile applications inevitable? If so, what technologies will lead the way in their development?

Java Micro Edition (Java ME)
Java ME, formerly called Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME), functions as Java for mobile devices as well as the Java embedded in consumer electronics such as TV set-top boxes and printers. It is a runtime environment that goes on the device and a set of Java APIs and tools to create the applications. Java's ubiquity on a number of platforms of all shapes and sizes is notable.

.NET Compact Framework
This platform is a version of the .NET Framework for Windows Mobile OS platforms. It's a subset of the standard .NET framework, but also includes some additional classes that address specific mobile device needs. For example, the library includes classes to work with the device's touch screen. Classes specific to the PC platform were removed, such as classes associated with remoting. The CLR execution engine was rebuilt so that it runs more efficiently on mobile devices that may have limited memory, resources and power. Like Java ME, this platform targets both mobile devices and other consumer electronics. For example, the XBox 360 consoles include a version of the .NET Compact Framework. You can write applications for the platform in C# or VB.NET. The Windows Mobile OS holds a significant market share on high-end PDAs and "smart phones."

Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW)
BREW is an application runtime platform created by Qualcomm for mobile phones. It was originally created for Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) devices, and more specifically, for Qualcomm's CDMA devices and chipsets. Qualcomm spearheaded the development of standards for this communication technology's use in digital cellular communications. BREW has since been ported to other devices, but largely remains a Qualcomm-specific platform. BREW provides a small runtime environment (approximately 150K in size) that runs on top of the device's Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) or essentially its OS. Applications run atop the BREW runtime. Applications can be written in different languages, although most use C or C++. There are some Java implementations for BREW, but they require that the application run on the JVM—which runs on BREW, which runs on ASIC.

Application Platform Evaluation Criteria
How do these environments stack up? A direct comparison can be difficult, given that many features provided through the application platform are a product of their targeted devices. However, some features worth examination are listed below. In addition, the other articles in this DevX special report on mobile development compare and contrast some aspects of these environments in more detail.

Platforms and Standards
Java's ubiquity on a number of platforms of all shapes and sizes is notable. In 2006, Sun claimed that Java was available on 3.8 billion devices and 1.2 billion phones. Sun's developer web site lists the hundreds of devices already outfitted with Java ME capability. Java, at its core, is meant to be platform-independent, but as indicated above, Java ME is a collection of specifications that outline a layered architecture:

  • Configurations provide the basic services, libraries, and virtual machine capabilities for a broad range of devices based on the memory, power, and connectivity of the device.
  • Profiles define the user interface, data storage, and other APIs for a narrower set of devices in a configuration.
  • Optional API Packages add capability to a configuration and profile to support device capabilities not present on all devices (such as multimedia and Bluetooth).
This architecture allows Java to be added to devices large and small. However, the portability of an application depends on how many devices and, therefore, how many configurations, profiles, and APIs are targeted. The Java ME architecture can also impact how simple or complex application development can be.

Microsoft is .NET's standard bearer. Proponents of .NET will claim other implementations of the .NET Common Language Infrastructure, such as Portable .NET and Mono, give .NET applications portability to other operating systems and devices, but portability is limited and these are not major players in the mobile arena. Windows Mobile OS is not a ubiquitous platform. It is common on relatively high-end "smart phones" and PDAs, but that popularity has not extended to lower end cell phones. Even on smart phones, a fourth quarter 2007 market data report from Canalys indicates that Windows Mobile has only a 12 percent market share. Competitors such as Symbian have a much bigger share worldwide (about 2/3 of the market) and others, such as Apple, are also working to cut into Microsoft's market share.

Unlike Java ME, BREW offers portability without the numerous APIs and environments. However, BREW is tightly controlled by Qualcomm. Developers must register (or, "authenticate" in Qualcomm terms) with Qualcomm and submit their applications for BREW testing before the applications can be put on a device. This is supposed to ensure a BREW application behaves properly and is able to port to any BREW-capable device without issue. However, the cost (at least $400) of the authentication/testing is not trivial and a barrier to the software enthusiasts. Also, there are complaints that BREW is implemented differently and inconsistently on different phones. The emulator is generic and does not demonstrate these differences.

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