Andreas Constantinou

Who will win the race of mobile application runtimes?

Who will win the race of mobile application runtimes?

[Flash Lite, WebKit, Java ME, Silverlight, Qt, Lua, Python… Research Director Andreas Constantinou takes an analytical look at the new battleground for mobile application runtimes and the struggle for dominance.]

Flash Lite and Java have been quietly penetrating the mobile handset market. Both application runtimes have in a sense shown that openness is not an exclusive privilege of open operating systems, but of the majority of mobile handsets.

A new set of application runtimes have also surfaced in the form of WebKit, Silverlight, Qt and Lua – shifting the battleground for software platforms from the OS level in 2002 up to the application runtime level in 2008.

We have explored the wide range of application runtimes before – but we have recently analysed how the key contenders compare and contrast. The next table lists the commercial, product, licensing and technology terms for seven leading runtimes. I will be discussing this analysis with a panel of industry execs at the Symbian Show on October 22nd in London.

Mobile application runtimes

Java ME is the most pervasive application runtime, installed on approximately 8 out of 10 handsets shipping in 2008/9 by most analyst estimates. Java’s proliferation looks set to continue as Motorola plans to release the MIDP3 source code under an APL2 license by April 2009, which should reduce both fragmentation and the costs of implementing Java ME for handset OEMs.

Adobe’s Flash Lite reached the 500 million installed base mark in May 2008 and looks set to penetrate even further thanks to the zero royalty fees that Adobe has pledged. The exposure of the underlying Flash Lite device integration layer should enable OEMs to develop more tightly integrated and more consistent FL implementations. Nokia has already integrated Flash Lite 3 on the latest S40 6th Edition platform; note that the S40 operating system is on more than half of Nokia’s 40% share of annual handset shipments. The Finnish OEM also plans to integrate Flash Lite more tightly on S60 through Platform Services. Sony Ericsson has also been pushing Flash Lite integration into Java apps through project Capuchin (see earlier analysis).

WebKit has been a surprise in the making during the last 5 years. Although initially developed as the engine to Apple’s Safari desktop browser, the software has been evolved and optimised significantly; Nokia’s mass-market S40 6th edition OS features WebKit, as do Nokia’s S60, Motorola’s WebUI, Adobe’s AIR and Google’s Android.

Silverlight is a newcomer from Microsoft, aiming to compete head-to-head with Flash Lite, and initially expected to appear on Nokia S60 handsets.

Qt presents an interesting riddle. We believe that Qt is Nokia’s technology platform for deploying Ovi services across mobile devices and consumer electronics. Longer term Qt should be forming a platform for Nokia to deploy their own apps and a consistent signature UI environment, although the transition will take 2-3 years to materialise.

Lua is an interesting new contender; it is a scripting language optimised for embedded environments and is known for both its simplicity and flexibility compared to JavaScript. It’s also licensed under the permissive MIT license, which has resulted in it being adopted and embedded into games SDKs and most notably as part of the BREW platform and Qualcomm’s uiOne SDK 2.0 (see details here).

I will be moderating the panel ‘Who will win the Runtime race?’ at the Symbian Show on October 22nd in London. joined by well-respected representatives from Adobe, Microsoft, Nokia, Sun and Symbian:
– Jürgen Scheible, author ‘Mobile Python – Rapid prototyping on the mobile platform’
– Pete Barr-Watson, Senior Business Development/Deployment Manager, Microsoft Silverlight
– Terrence Barr, Senior Technologist and Community Ambassador, Sun Microsystems
– Antony Edwards, VP Developer Product Management, Symbian
– Matt Millar, Director of Mobile and Devices, EMEA, Adobe
– Benoit Schillings, CTO, Trolltech/ Nokia

If you are attending the Symbian Show, do join – I do expect an intense and stimulating debate as we discuss which application runtime will win.

Thanks to Erik Jacobson, Timo Bruns and Terrence Barr for their feedback on the comparative table of application runtimes.

Update: The keynote panel session went well. I did not expect any revelations, especially in front of an audience of 1,000+ people attending the panel. But there was one very interesting announcement at the Show; the role Qt will play for Nokia’s applications, devices and Ovi.

Qt's role for Nokia

This slide, originally from Nokia’s analyst webcast on Qt on Oct 28, is quite revealing. Nokia is planning to use Qt, its cross-platform application environment, to port its own core applications and Ovi services across a broad range of devices. Qt will then be ported onto S60 (as Nokia announced) as well as across the Nokia device portfolio – which includes S40 – as this slide reveals. Naturally, Nokia’s Ovi services should expand to non-Nokia phones and desktop PCs. We predicted this strategy for Qt in earlier research notes here and here, but Nokia is moving much faster than we were expecting.

Another interesting quasi-announcement was that WebKit will be one of the key pillars of the Symbian Foundation efforts, as announced by Lee Williams, the newly appointed head of the Foundation. WebKit is already integrated on Qt, so we should see the Qt + WebKit stack penetrating mobile devices very fast very soon. In the light of these announcements, we have upped our estimates of Qt embeds in 2009 to 50M handsets, assuming S60 starts shipping with Qt from 2H09.

So which application runtime will win? If Google searches is anything to go by, then WebKit is clearly the ‘runtime of the year’ for 2008. As for the foreseeable future, one thing is certain; there will be more runtimes supported by mobile devices, before real consolidation settles in.

Google Trends - runtimes

– Andreas

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