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Macromedia steps up to top phone slot, hires Juha Christensen

Flash - Juha - He'll save ev'ry one of us

Juha Christensen's move from Microsoft to Macromedia, announced today, marks a new dawn for Flash. Flash may be the bane of web surfers in a hurry! - but it has become a real contender for the role of "key software product for phones" with the adoption of Flash Lite by Japanese network Docomo.

Terror struck several players in the phone business when Symbian founder Christensen first moved from Symbian to Microsoft, as the nightmare prospect of Windows Everywhere suddenly looke as if it would embrace the mobile cellhone as well as the pocket PC. Today, however, the idea that Windows will automatically dominate the pocket-top is not seen as a serious risk.

So the question does arise: what will dominate the user interface of the phone of the future? - and surprisingly, Macromedia Flash Lite looks increasingly like the answer.

Initially, the Japanese network, Docomo, is adopting Flash purely for the games - but the hope is that once there are thousands of flash-equipped phones, people will start downloading other Flash content from other web sites - generating much-needed data revenue for the networks. And it's working, says Macromedia; already, 20% of iMode sites use Flash.

Before Christensen moved to Macromedia, I had a long chat with Anup Murarka, the senior director of the mobile and devices group with whom Yuha will be working. And there, they see the games and content as just a first step to taking over the world. Well, sort of!

The boom, he says, is coming in the interface design area. Flash, it turns out, is great for simulating how a device will work. "People now prototype the entire device UI in flash," claims Marurka. "They take that prototype, and give it to an engineering team and say: 'Build this!' and then they write the code in whatever the device interface uses. But now, we allow them to actually use the prototype in the device."

It's not quite "write once, run anywhere" - at least not yet. But increasingly, the Docomo initiative is giving phone companies the idea of a common top layer to their software, for all their different operating systems. Then, if someone wants to change a menu, it can be implemented on all the phones they make just by changing the Flash code.

What has made this possible was the deal, done back in March last year. Already, 16 different phones, on different software platforms, have resulted; the Docomo designs are built by several different manufacturers. All they have to do is make sure they run the Flash Lite interface.

In global terms the five to ten million phones so far sold look like small numbers; but in the Japanese market, it's a real trend, and network operators outside the Asian area are watching, fascinated.

This week, in the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Macromedia will be able to take people to one side, and show them software running on a Windows Mobile phone, a Symbian phone, a Linux phone, and a proprietary interface - and in theory, a Palm phone. It's nothing that is being officially announced - announcements wait for the phone makers to do the work, and the networks to set up the publicity.

But what makes this really interesting, is that it makes it possible to put smartphone features onto a pretty ordinary phone.

Flash Lite is tiny. It's a full GUI running in 200K. Smartphones require fast processors - around 100 MHz, or more - and at least eight megabytes of memory. And then there's the bandwidth, too.

Anup Murarka summarises: "It's footprint, and processor, and screen size. Flash lite only needs 50 mips or less processing power - if we wanted to be in millions of phones, we couldn't rely on 100 MHz and 8 Meg of memory and full screen VGA - so it's nothing like Flash 7.0 on the desktop. And most importantly, we don't have the sort of bandwidth that computer users are accustomed to."

The networks, of course, don't really care about how easy it is for phone makers to design phones. What they do care about, however, is having control of the market. In Europe, where average revenue per user lags heavily behind Japanese ARPU, the phone networks are starting to buy into the Sendo philosophy - that they want their own brand of phone - not a Nokia phone, but an Orange SPV; not a Motorola, but a T-Mobile Sidekick; a world where nobody actually knows who makes the Vodafone live! handsets is what they dream of.

"In Europe, where carriers have not had control over the consumer relationship, and the customer has picked the phone, they're looking for ways to change that," says Murarka. "They want opportunities to be a true service provider, rather than just a bandwidth provider. They will compete on that basis; Flash makes it far simpler, faster, to deliver great content."

In the US, says Macromedia, the services are still evolving; ARPU for data services there is less than 5% of what it is in Japan or Europe. "Carriers here are more integrated in an integrated service, but are not as focused on application services," claims Murarka. But this week, at CES, he'll be able to demonstrate a "reference design" for Flash Lite on a Qualcomm BREW software platform. "It hasn't been announced, but we'd love to see Flash on a BREW phone, and we have been able to demonstrate it..."

And it holds out the promise of the user interface on all MMO2 phones being a standard O2 interface; all AT&T phones having the same look and feel; all Docomo phones being recogniseable Docomo style, and every Orange handset behaving the same way when you press the green phone button. That could be a real benefit for the users.

Of course, they wouldn't know whether the phone was Symbian, or Microsoft, or BREW. But would they care?

© 2004, NewsWireless.Net

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