Qualcomm Brews Up an Intriguing Software System

To some, it might seem like an unlikely pairing: wireless handset chipsets and mobile application development tools. To Qualcomm, however, it is a match that makes sense and is starting to have an impact on the wireless data industry.

Qualcomm is best known for its CDMA chipsets that are found in popular cell phones from manufacturers such as Kyocera and Nokia. Lately, though, the company has been promoting BREW, (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless), an application development environment designed to make it easier for third parties to build wireless data applications.


Introduced in February 2001, the development ecosystem initially struggled for acceptance. Recently it has begun to pick up steam, but it still has to clear a few hurdles before it becomes a bona fide hit. “BREW has been gaining third party acceptance but the progress has been slow and largely under the industry’s radar,” said Neil Strother, an industry analyst with market research firm The NPD Group.

BREW started out as a tool to help developers connect their applications to carriers’ back end billing systems. “There is not a lot of application infrastructure in the wireless world the way that there is in the wired world, so building applications can be difficult,” said Bobby Betros, CTO and founder of Digital Orchid, a wireless software supplier.

Qualcomm began with billing systems because they are complex: they often span millions of lines of code and rely on complex sets of interconnected applications. Consequently, developers had to spend a lot of time — spanning from a few to several months — designing custom interfaces that worked with each carrier’s applications. Once they did that, the developers had to complete it for the next carrier, an inefficient and time consuming process.

Carrier Customization Options Increase

Compounding the problem, the process has become more complex. “Carriers do not want to sell standard services — they are afraid they will be commoditized; instead they want to differentiate their services and charge customers a bit more for the ones that they offer,” said Bob Egan, service director, emerging technologies at market research firm The Tower Group. With handsets varying in terms of screen size, memory, form factor, and embedded software, carriers’ ability to develop different services has been increasing. As a result, less and less of developers’ applications are reusable, and they have been spending more and more time tying their applications into carriers’ billing systems.

Qualcomm designed a standard interface that should work with a variety of carrier networks. To ensure that it would ease development chores, the company developed its own certification process. The firm’s ecosystem works like this — developers create an application and submit it to Qualcomm, which then certifies it and makes it available to the various wireless carriers. In this scenario, developers build one application, and it becomes available to a number of different wireless carriers. To date, third parties have used BREW to build applications so carriers can offer services such as ring tones, gaming and video mail to consumers.

BREW appears to be gaining ground, as Qualcomm recently stated that 69 carriers have built BREW applications, 44 companies have designed compatible handheld devices, and carriers — major supporters include Verizon, Japan’s KDDI, and Korea’s KTF — have made BREW applications available in 31 countries. In addition, developers earned US$350 million in the past year from their applications, a number that doubled the revenue earned since the software development environment’s inception in 2001.

Broadening BREW’s Reach

Buoyed by the advances, Qualcomm has tried to broaden BREW’s reach. The company expanded the product line with uiONE, a handheld user interface; deliveryONE, a content management system; and MediaFLO, which supports video transmissions.

Consequently, BREW has been evolving from a single purpose back end billing interface into a general purpose software development environment. As this expansion takes place, BREW starts to bump up against other development options. Since its inception, the Qualcomm software has been positioned against Sun’s Java 2 Mobile Edition (J2ME) option. While the Java approach is geared more toward traditional software development than to application integration interfaces, the areas of overlap between the two are growing. In addition, vendors have been adding more application interfaces to operating systems, such as Linux, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and Symbian.

BREW must overcome a few challenges in order to carve out a viable niche among these options. The most obvious is increasing the number of applications and developers that support the application development environment. Since Sun’s Java and Microsoft’s Visual Studio work with desktop systems, thousands of applications are available with them, compared to hundreds with BREW.

Tied to Select Chipsets

Another issue is that the software is often viewed as a niche technology because it works only on phones using Qualcomm’s chipsets. While the company has made some headway in the marketplace, only about 25 percent of all cell phones are based on the company’s wireless technology standard.

Developers have concerns about the BREW business model. Qualcomm acts as the wholesaler and the wireless carrier is the retailer. When a consumer downloads an application, the developer, Qualcomm and wireless phone company share the revenue. In some cases, developers prefer to work directly with carriers.

Because of the hurdles, BREW is still in the midst of an attempt to transition from interesting niche technology to significant industry force. “Qualcomm has had some success with BREW but it is still unclear whether or not it will be embraced by a significant number of developers,” concluded The NPD Group’s Strother.

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