How Java nearly killed mobile games

It’s the best of times, the worst of times for the mobile games industry, says Tim Harrison

How Java nearly killed mobile games
This article is a guest contribution from mobile games industry veteran Tim Harrison (pictured right).

Last week’s report by Comscore on the improving health of the US mobile games business fanned a welcome waft of fresh air over a wheezing European industry.

Rising overall downloads, accelerating smartphone uptake, close to 300 per cent year on year growth in smartphone downloads, iPhone going from strength to strength… it's all good, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no. The truth is, concealed there in the 14 per cent drop in ‘non-smartphone platforms’ is the simple fact that the industry is probably in its most critical condition since the J2ME platform was invented.

When the mobile games industry started to take off around 2001, Java was seen as the saviour to a beleaguered game developer base, an antidote to the bloated teams, bloated budgets and the omnipotence of the post-3D console publishers.

Mobile and its enabler, Java J2ME, offered a tantalising opportunity to bridge the developer/publisher divide and a real opportunity for creative developers to break out and put some wearying flesh back in a new, more egalitarian game.

But it didn’t really pan out like that, did it? After maybe 18 exciting months, and a few more of actually making money, the independent developer model began to slide into decline.

Consolidation in the industry began to create a pretty toxic environment. It was an environment in which few thrived, leading to the rise of the super-publisher and super-developer.

Java was conceived as the write once, deploy anywhere solution, but the multiple variants of it required to hit every phone of the planet created a complexity that only the very largest or most specialised business could deal with. And the consolidation of multiple distributors and publishers into an already limited operator retail channel strangled an already yoked neck.

The potential for a healthy, balanced ecosystem was destroyed by the twin curses of mobile: the F word of Fragmentation, and the C word of Consolidation.

Enter Apple

Then came our friends from Cupertino. Fast forward to 2009 and we have a new platform that has reinvigorated the industry, making Java’s early promise seem both familiar and quaint.

Smaller teams, straightforward route to market, scale with a single SKU, low-cost development … yes, Apple has truly displaced Java as the write once, deploy to many solution.

More importantly, Apple has put the thrill back into mobile games, like the fresh-faced cutie arriving late to a dull party, bringing crates of beer, barrels of enthusiasm and the promise of a leg-over.

So should we really mourn Java’s decline? Who - apart from Sun Microsystems, its blind watchmaker creator - should be concerned? With the ascendancy of exciting new platforms, does the industry really need to care?

There lies the challenge. As much as Comscore’s US numbers are cheering, European operators and the majority of customers are still geared up around Java - handsets and distribution.

With a few notable examples, many of the Smartphones in customers’ hands are not yet properly catered for by the operator portals while open-market retail is yet to fly in a data charged world.

The little guys short-changed by the collapse of the Java dream will certainly reap some benefits in the medium term. But the behemoths of the mobile industry - the larger publishers with their massive porting teams, and infrastructure and processes build around the Java Problem - can’t afford to run their whole businesses off the back of a few handsets. And like it or not, those guys create consumer demand and regulate the ecosystem.

The iPhone - however undeniably fine a device it is - is still only one device, and an immature one at that. Its already massive content catalogue offers unrivalled consumer choice, but also an increasingly competitive environment. The cream will not inevitably float to the top.

And whatever the benefits of an app store model, it is questionable whether we wish to simply replace operator hegemony with the oligopoly of just a few handset makers.

Like it or not, there is still an enormous base of boring old feature phones out there in the hands of paying customers.

Yes, it's an under-optimised (and often unimpressed) customer base, but the industry can’t allow unbridled enthusiasm for new platforms and distribution to halt innovation there.

Outside the high profile smartphones currently hogging the column inches, there is a wealth of second division native platforms, a generation of devices that the industry can’t afford to lose.

There is hope for the ‘write once, deploy many’ dream beyond a single device - new protocols, abstraction layers and the like promise to at least slow the further fragmentation of handsets.

Even Sun itself has announced a new flavour of Java that seeks to consign fragmentation to memory. But handset development timescales and the average handset replacement cycle takes us well into 2011 before we really start to see the fruits of that promise.

Liberty, equality, fraternity?

During the optimistic early days of the French revolution, the liberal thinker Edmund Burke warned against entirely rejecting the established order in favour of a new model that headily promised liberty and egality for all.

As history taught us, much that was wrong was indeed swept away but some very dark days had to be endured in the process.

So it’s not going to get any easier, but at least the industry has experience (and failure) to continue learning from.

The unbridled enthusiasm evident at last month's MGF event - when every sentence seemed to have an A, a couple of Ps and a couple of Ls in it - was cheering in one sense; an industry seemingly in decline has seen a fruit-shaped light at the end of the tunnel.

While the old order is certainly crumbling, we don’t have the luxury of abandoning it just yet.
Tim Harrison is an independent consultant with unrivalled experience in the mobile games space on both the operator and publisher side of the business. Until late 2008, Tim was EMEA Marketing Director at EA Mobile. Previously, as Head of Games at Vodafone Group, he was part of the team that launched the groundbreaking Vodafone Live! service. You can contact Tim at regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.