Could Flash save the mobile market?

Juha Christensen cuts a charming figure. But his history in the mobile business is guaranteed to make him controversial - and very interesting. In a nutshell, he is the man who wants to see all of us using Macromedia's Flash player, as a universal front end on mobile devices.

We ran into him at the Nordic Unwired conference designed to create investment in Sweden and Denmark, held in the Oresund region which is home to businesses from both nations. In the conference, every kind of company form the mobile space, debated how to increase revenues - and Christensen's contribution was to say that Macromedia's Flash could make phones more profitable by alowing them to host more, better and faster applications.

Are you serious?
Web users accustomed to waiting for the Flash intro to finish before they can get to real content may snort at this. But it comes from a man with a history in some of the key parts of the mobile industry. Christensen co-founded Symbian in 1996 , and did much to establish the relationships which make that the leading smartphone platform today, heading that negotations that got Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, among other, behind the platform.

In 2000, he abruptly went over to the other side, becoming corporate vice-president of Microsoft's mobile devices group, bringing out the Pocket PC and smartphone products which constitute Microsoft's answer to Symbian. His departure from that job, at the end of 2003, was widely described as a sacking; sites sympathetic to Microsoft's mobile ambitions still tend to be Histology World site as the worst example (do not follow the link if you are epileptic - but appreciate the author's po-faced defence).

Christensen acknowledges this image problem - he jokingly refers to Macromedia as the "Skip Intro" company. Mobile devices are cursed with lower bandwidth and smaller screens; they do not need the same Flash misuse, and will not get it.

Flash Lite: data friendly and portable
We are talking here of Flash Lite, a profile developed for mobile phones. It renders graphics consistently on different operating systems and devices, and uses the Scalable Vector Graphics - Tiny standard (SVG-T) to transmit them compactly. The whole idea is to save developers from having to port code to multiple platforms, and allow them to build an application once to deliver anywhere (developers can download it here).

If that sounds familiar, it should. It is exactly the promise that Java made, some eight years ago. But Java set its sights very high, intending to take over from the operating system on every kind of device as the platform to write to.

"There is no standardisation in operating systems," says Christensen. "There will always be more than a handful," he says, citing the current runners of Linux, Symbian and Microsoft. "We want things to run on all devices, so we need to have interpreted code not native code."

"Java verified that concept,. But it fragmented widely," he says. Java developers now wearily talk about "write once, debug everywhere".

"We want to get Flash everywhere," says Christensen. Making it into a platform for delivering applications is a step beyond its role as a purveyor of tools to build fluff on web sites, I suggest. "Macromedia was a diamond in the rough," he says. "I came and saw the opportunity to move up the food chain."

Java and WAP done right?
You can see Flash Lite as a better attempt at Java, he suggests, and it is also a better alternative to previous mobile content efforts: "Flash Lite is WAP done right," he comments. It is a push technology, not a pull technology, and users will get stuff they want without having to click endlessly and wait for page updates.

Already, there have been impressive applications developed. The company has a strong base, with very many developers (70,000 in Korea alone, he says), and millions of installed players on PCs.

Most people do not think of Flash as a medium for delivering and handling data, he concedes, but the SVG-T spec is XML-based, and Flash Lite uses XML for data handling. "XML is great for data, but not very good for the user experience," he says. With XML on board, Flash Lite will be just fine for handling application logic, and will be a good platform for enterprise data applications, he believes.

Can it save the operators?
The mobile operators - casting about them for money-making ideas, at the Nordic Unwired conference, could look favourably on the project. They need Flash Lite, or some other unifying platform that will make it easy to deliver applications to users, to keep their revenues up. As Christensen explains, operators are getting less money from their users, and need to do something about it.

Flash Lite is already in use on NTT DoCoMo's i-mode phones in Japan, he says: "Flash Lite is on 90 percent of handsets sold in Japan, and forty percent of i-mode content is Flash!"

Next stop, Christensen is calling on his old buddies. He has promised that Sony Ericsson, Symbian, Texas Instruments and T-Mobile also plan to use Flash Lite.

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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