Strange(ly familiar) BREW

“Went looking for wireless apps and what did I see…an SDP looking back at me.”

Over the years the longest-running publications in our industry have done a lead story or two based on our research, not because OSS or BSS sent a Chris Mathews-style thrill up their leg but (of course) because of the services they enable. Well designed and executed B/OSS is truly a marvel to behold, but it’s a means to an end. If you don’t believe me you can ask the hundreds of hot software shops in our industry who met the cold front of market reality and whose businesses either came to a stormy end or were blown off their original course into entirely different industries. The elements upon which we build today’s networks are no longer dimwitted devices waiting to be managed, they’re rolling off the assembly line smarter and more self-managing than ever before, with more robust element managers built either by the manufacturers themselves or by the likes of Nakina Systems. And it is worth noting the emergence of companies such as Packet Design who provide concurrent monitoring and analysis of complex IP networks, not through the centralized software manager of managers approach but principally by embedding intelligent appliances in the network.

If you’re still in this business today it’s probably because you’ve been expanding your horizons for quite some time and taking a broader, more pragmatic view of what B/OSS is all about.

With that I give you a new name to consider in the B/OSS market: QUALCOMM.

“Huh?” Yes, Qualcomm. (We’ll indulge the company’s preferred all caps on first mention but that’s it.) The wireless technology giant’s BREW platform and its PLAZA mobile widgets fit the profile of an emerging category that’s already a staple of life for some of the world’s largest wireless operators and will be de rigeur for nearly all of them soon: A service delivery platform (SDP) for wireless services and applications. SDPs provide a common way to introduce and integrate new services into an operator’s existing network and services fabric, slashing the time, risk and cost of launching new offerings. Content providers can quickly and easily deliver the services users want by interacting with an SDP’s standard interfaces. Users enjoy consuming services they can see and touch, accessing and managing them via intuitive, user-and-PDA-friendly, self-service web portals. Service providers can readily plug in or unplug content providers to meet shifting market demand (and shifting content provider quality).

But BREW? Who knew?

BREW = Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless, which at first was an internal toolset used by Qualcomm engineers working on wireless chipsets and then evolved into an on-board operating environment embedded in the chips themselves. Today Qualcomm certifies BREW applications and hosts them, either on a BREW server in the service provider’s facilities or on Qualcomm’s own servers. Steaming out of this hotbed of wireless development (!) came PLAZA, which is a mobile widget: A thin Internet client, a single-purpose, self-contained application, that in a click or two can deliver small quantities of personalized information or links directly to the screen of a wireless device. When the user clicks on the widget it can launch an application, open a window to a specific web page or retrieve information such as updates on your flight schedule later today, weather and stock reports. (Perhaps even an auto-link to, or immediately following the stock reports.)

One analogy for what mobile widgets do is to remember when applets first appeared on the web, providing mini-applications with a light footprint that ran easily on almost any machine instead of “heavier” bandwidth-hogging applications that ran poorly or not at all for many users depending on connection speed and computing power. Another is placing Flash videos on a website instead of larger, bandwidth-devouring media files that, again, would otherwise provide either an unsatisfactory experience or no experience at all for many users. Qualcomm-certified and Qualcomm-hosted sounds proprietary, and indeed that has been the case with other applications built on BREW, but Plaza is a whole new ballgame in that dimension, too, a platform-agnostic mobile widget launching pad built to open web development standards.

As perhaps the quintessential CDMA shop, it is no surprise that one of Qualcomm’s most visible and important customers is Verizon. If you’ve ever used a Verizon wireless device to launch a business application, order up a ringtone or watch TV or a video, chances are the underlying platform that delivered it to your handset was built by Qualcomm. Yet Qualcomm is also providing that click-and-it’s-here user experience for AT&T, Alltel and operators in other world regions. Users can download apps from their service provider or through the Qualcomm BREWZone, but that is about as high a profile as Qualcomm is interested in raising: It is focused on providing white-labeled/OEM service-enabling technologies to its customers.

As you might guess, many others have entered this growing market, including another large telecom player, Nokia. Most widget platforms are based on Java Platform 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) or asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) and players include Access (and its better-known NetFront platform), Bling Software, BluePulse, Mywidz, Openwave, Opera Software, Webwag, WidSets, WidX, Yahoo! and Zumobi. Some widget engines are being rearchitected using the Global Language for Open Widget Environments (GLOWE), an XML-based file format, so they can be implemented on any platform. Opera is the same company that provides the formerly-chargeable-but-now-freeware Opera browser, and it is only a matter of time before the providers of the other most widely-used browsers join the fray: Avant Force (Avant browser), Mozilla (FireFox) and of course: Microsoft (Internet Explorer) and Google (Chrome).

Are all of these companies going to be rousing successes over the long haul when it comes to being arms merchants to the service providers? No. While Qualcomm and Nokia are already well-established suppliers in the service provider world, and Yahoo! and Google have the resources to compete in this or any league, some of the rest are direct-to-user retail outlets whose entire staffs would comfortably fit in a single conference room buried somewhere deep inside Qualcomm’s global empire.

Are at least some of these companies cashing in by making it easy for the world’s service providers to open new revenue streams delivering today’s most sought-after services and applications to their end customers? Should you as a software company, service provider, outsourcer or anyone else with a stake in the communications market be watching for clues on how to open a new revenue stream that delivers results to your bottom line? We’ll report. You decide.

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