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Sunday, 20 October, 2002, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Battle for the heart of the handset
Repton screenshot, Masabi
Retro thrills with Repton on the Nokia 7650
A war is being fought for room inside your mobile phone.

The conflict is over the software your phone will use to handle the slick graphics demanded by engaging mobile games.

Phones need help to display these graphics but many mobile operators are finding that the software a handset uses for this is changing too slowly.

As a result many technology firms are announcing alliances to put their own-brand software inside phones so they can grab part of what will be a very big market.

Common cause

The latest handsets use software called Java so they can download and run games, utilities and other programs not included when the phone was bought.

"Java is about abstracting horrible hardware differences to provide this generic interface that lets you write a game that will run on a whole range of devices," said Steve Steele, Java program manager at chip designer Arm.

Java gets help talking to a phone through a specification with the arresting name of the Mobile Information Device Profile or MIDP.

But few are big fans of the specification's first edition.

"It's quite limited and lacking in terms of its multimedia capability," said Mr Steele.

Nokia 7650, Nokia
Play Doom here
The problem is that many mobile phone firms want to put better games on phones now to make high-value customers upgrade to a handset that can handle them and get them paying to download new titles and levels.

UK technology firm Masabi has made a version of the classic computer game Repton for the Nokia 7650 handset that can be played and payed for this way.

A downloadable version of classic Doom has also been made for the 7650.

To get around the limitations of the basic MIDP specification, many operators are signing up with firms that have developed their own-brand software extensions that do a better job of handling complex graphics.

Now there are 45 separate sets of extensions for mobile phones, none of which work together.

"It's a problem because it leads to fragmentation," said Mr Steele.

Companies such as TTPCom and In-Fusio have signed separate deals with handset makers and operators to install their extensions into handsets as they are built so they can handle new games.

Handset makers such as Nokia and Ericsson have their own extensions, too.

Games on the go

The next edition of MIDP is due within a couple of months and improves a phone's ability to display graphics by adding such things as the ability to rotate sprites 90 degrees.

But some think the new edition does not go far enough.

"If you are trying to do a car race game then 90-degree turns are not terribly useful," said Neil Wardmuller of technology firm TTPCom. "The trouble is that you cannot do a very compelling game using MIDP 2."

Mission 3D screenshot, In-Fusio
Phone games are starting to look better
The own-brand extensions to Java allow for much smoother rotations, smooth scaling and pseudo 3D graphics as well as allowing simultaneous button presses that let players move and jump or shoot at the same time.

Mr Wardmuller said many phone operators were not waiting for the new edition of MIDP and were signing deals now to get some customers converted to games now before the mass market developed.

"At the moment, there is an awful lot of variance and no-one wants to back one particular version," he said.

Basic Java games that can work on many different handsets are starting to appear but most are being given away free because few people would be willing to pay for them.

Networks such as 02 are already letting people download games such as Asteroids to their handset.

The danger is that unless phone makers reach a consensus on which software they will use, consumers could be faced with a very limited set of games dictated by which mobile network they sign up with.

But without agreement on how to do it, the operators could be shooting themselves in the foot.

See also:

03 Sep 02 | Technology
07 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
17 Dec 01 | dot life
21 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
03 May 01 | Entertainment
13 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
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