Flash Lite versus J2ME showdown, will history repeat itself ?
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last two years, or using a Windows-based "smart" phone (with no correlation between both), you probably know that Java mobile applications are quite popular among vendors devices or operators' content delivery systems, just like ringtones, wallpapers or SMS services.
Even better, you can now find Java apps acting like ringtones or wallpapers microdelivery systems, for example photo albums allowing you to browse galeries of themed thumbnails pictures before buying the full wallpaper, or mini jukeboxes allowing you audio previewing of your favorite mainstream radio songs (sorry Apple addicts, this Motorola iTunes player will not be the wow-first-of-its-kind), sometimes also even bundling a karaoke player, if you are a really bored person, or want to impress your girlfriend because she really really liked that famous Lost in translation Roxy Music scene, you know.
Unfortunately for Sun, Japan didn't only export this weird kind of karaoke Java apps.
A little thing called Flash Lite (1.0 then 1.1) has been heavily gaining popularity in the archipel in the last two years. Then T-Mobile UK (then .de) launched around July 2004 its News Express service, a highly eye-candy Symbian+Flash Lite app allowing its customers to browse news on 3D-like floating panels. The app has now been discontinued, but it was enough to ignite the fuss on .us Macromedia Developer Forums about this blasting "flash mobile" stuff.
The Flash plugin was first not available to the public, and could not be easily extracted from the T-Mobile app. Then Macromedia decided to give the plugin for free to registered forums developers, restricting installation based on an IMEI serial number you had to send them, and this was enough to feed the happy mobile crowd, who had been playing with the mobile SDK, waiting for the real mobile plugin. In the meantime, Macromedia also hired Bill Perry, webmaster of flashdevices.net and one of the first most active Flash mobile enthusiasts as - that won't fit on a business card - "Developer Support and Content Manager for Mobile and Devices". The bomb was set up.
It exploded at the MAX2004 conference in November, where the same Bill gave an enlightening presentation entitled "Creating Dynamic Applications with Flash Lite 1.1", still available on his web site. Later on around January 2005, Macromedia revamped their web site mobile section, giving it a real portal at www.macromedia.com/mobile, launched a contest for the Best mobile Flash application, filled their Exchange zone with winners or hobbyists apps, and began selling the plugin to developers. It's now July 2005 and things have been moving slowly but surely for Flash Lite. Nokia and Samsung are integrating 1.1, and a few european operators are now including the plugin in selected pool devices, mostly Japanese phones or Nokia Series60.
While this little background story may sound like a Macromedia apologist, this is not right. I've written a few J2ME apps for my company, and I'm happy to see Sun adding new stuff to their MIDP API. But when I first saw the T-Mobile service, and saw my first Flash Lite apps living on my Nokia 3650, sorry, but this was just too cool. The thing is that this "cool factor" is IMHO a major spot in the mobile world, especially when you target a younger audience. See these stupid Crazy DJ Frog ringtones. But Sun probably doesn't care much about this, because there is a HUGE availablity of J2ME on phones, whereas the Flash Lite plugin is still trying to gain both operators and vendors.
Still, Flash already killed the applets, and Macromedia is obviously aiming at the mobile market. They have the tools, the right people, the money (well perhaps not that much since the Adobe story), and a clear objective. And they have the brand, everyone plays Flash, everyone knows Flash, but what's that "Java" thing ? Plus Duke is not that cool.
This will be interesting to see where - or if, or when - the battlefield will take place, either on the higher ground - vendors and operators - or the lower ground - J2ME studios versus Flash studios. This is about anticipation.