Change is Afoot to Enhance Cell Phones

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 12:45 AM

For years, Flash software has added pop and sizzle to Web pages, making possible animations, slide shows and interactive games. Now the graphic interface technology is coming to the mobile phone screen. Qualcomm and Adobe recently said they will create a version of Qualcomm's BREW - a system for bringing games, news and other data to the mobile screen - that works with Flash.

Longtime members of the tech community might recall that Flash originated in San Diego in 1993 as FutureSplash from FutureWave Software. FutureWave was acquired in 1997 by Macromedia, which merged with Adobe in 2005.

Qualcomm has announced that it is expanding BREW to enable iPhone-like widgets - small programs delivering weather, sports scores or other information - to be capable of running on all phones. Until last year, BREW applications worked only on phones using chips based on Qualcomm's CDMA and WCDMA technology.

The announcements came in advance of Qualcomm's eighth annual BREW Conference, which in May brought together mobile application developers and wireless companies.

At its heart, BREW, or binary run-time environment for wireless, is technology for cell phones and carrier networks to enable mobile games, downloadable ring tones and Web applications on phone screens. BREW serves as a catalyst for these data-based applications, and includes systems to test the products developers create and for carriers to bill customers who download them.

Compelling applications drive sales of BREW-capable phones, which boosts sales of Qualcomm chips.

The BREW Conference showcased advances in the Qualcomm platform, which competes with Java, Windows Mobile, the Google-backed Android and several others. The new, Flash-compatible BREW Mobile Platform will contribute to both the consumer experience and the so-called BREW ecosystem that connects developers and carriers such as Verizon Wireless, said Shiv Bakhshi, director of mobile devices technology and trends at market research firm IDC.

“It will definitely enhance the user experience, absolutely,” Bakhshi said. “But what's more significant is that it potentially adds all the Flash developers out there to the BREW developer community.” Broadening the number of developers will lead to more and better functions, which will encourage growth, Bakhshi said. While the number of people who play games, surf the Web or check stock prices on their phones remains a fraction of phone owners, it's a growing fraction for BREW and competitors.

“Qualcomm just announced that the developer community earned $1 billion last year from BREW,” Bakhshi said. “It's definitely growing.”

One of the developers targeting BREW revenue is UI Magic. The company makes widgets for BREW phones on the Alltel network on the East Coast. UI Magic products deliver college and professional sports scores and news, along with weather and lottery results for fees ranging from 99 cents to $8.99 per month, said engineering director Scott Rocca.

Also at the conference was mSpot, showing off its new ring tone products. The service lets subscribers download any of the 250,000 songs in its catalog and select a favorite riff or lyric. With the press of a button, the $6.99 monthly service will send the subscriber a high-fidelity version of the selection and automatically install it as the default ringer.

In the era of MySpace and Facebook, no mobile phone conference would be complete without a social networking application. JuiceCaster Vice President Amir Hosseinpour snapped a photo with his phone, pressed a button and waited a few seconds for the image to show upon a demonstration Facebook page. Using GPS technology and BREW, the photo is “geotagged” and is identified as originating from San Diego. “If friends comment on my photos, it gets sent back to my phone,” Hosseinpour said.

Last year, Qualcomm began expanding BREW-related products to include applications, such as one from Major League Baseball, that deliver content to non-BREW phones through a service called Brand-Xtend. The widget application, called Plaza further opens the system. While the BREW system currently limits applications to those purchased directly from wireless carriers, Qualcomm hopes to open the system to allow any phone owner to purchase products from any developer, said Andrew Gilbert, Qualcomm executive vice president and president of Qualcomm Internet Services/MediaFLO Technologies and Qualcomm Europe. “Assuming operator cooperation, it would open up more applications to more subscribers,” Gilbert said.

Copley News Service.