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Making Your Phone Smarter

Skyward Mobile’s technology could help older phones do more.

Applications designed for mobile phones are becoming more and more popular, spurred by the development of smart phones such as Apple’s iPhone. But many applications are available only on high-end devices, or on the newest models. Now a startup that launched on Monday called Skyward Mobile, based in Woburn, MA, says that it can help make the most of older, cheaper phones. The company’s developers claim that their technology, called APX, allows them to create advanced applications for a wide variety of phones, some as much as eight years old.

Running anywhere: Skyward Mobile’s APX technology allows the company to build programs such as the hangman game shown above, which can run on a wide variety of mobile devices without requiring further fine-tuning. APX automatically adjusts software to suit device characteristics such as screen size and processing power.

Many software developers only build applications for, at most, the top 40 most popular handsets on the market, says Skyward Mobile CEO Jeremy De Bonet. Handsets are so different that adapting an application to a new device can be as difficult as building the application from scratch. Different screen sizes, keyboard layouts, processing power, and capacities for memory present major challenges to any would-be developer. Many software developers hire third-party companies to adapt their software to different phones, adding to the cost and time it takes to make applications available.

To deploy an application across all the major North American operators, a developer would have to create about 100 different versions to cover different devices, says Allen Lau, CTO and cofounder of Tira Wireless, a company that specializes in helping large developers such as Yahoo adapt applications to the mobile market. On top of that, Lau says, different carriers have different requirements, so developers often have to build multiple versions of an application to support even a single popular handset.

Skyward Mobile says that, by using APX, the company doesn’t have to individually convert each application to each supported handset. “If you think about the landscape of handsets as being this horribly bumpy terrain,” De Bonet says, “you can think of what we do as troweling, the way a plasterer makes a wall smooth.” When a customer downloads a Skyward Mobile application, what she’s actually downloading is a thin client layer–the file is 60 kilobytes for a java-enabled phone–which compensates for a few of the issues on the device but, most important, forms a real-time link to the company’s server. The intelligent server communicates with the client while the application runs, compensating for the rest of the device’s issues. The server might compensate for ongoing issues, such as providing information on how to play video on a device that doesn’t have a built-in system, or it might adjust for dynamic issues, such as fluctuations in available bandwidth.

De Bonet compares the APX system with that used by Web-based applications, which allow a computer running Mozilla Firefox, for example, to access games, word-processing applications, and e-mail through the single browser application installed on the hard drive.

For example, Skyward Mobile has an application that sells ring tones and wallpaper. While most mobile interfaces require a user to scroll through a list of textual descriptions, buying ring tones without hearing them or wallpaper without seeing it, Skyward Mobile’s application plays previews of the ring tones and shows thumbnails of the wallpaper. The audio player is part of the application, and the user can buy ring tones and listen to them within the same interface, which isn’t otherwise possible on some phones.

Although the server can only do so much–for example, some older phones don’t play MP3 files–De Bonet says that a key part of the company’s strategy is to reach a wider market by supporting phones being given away for free, as well as current high-end phones. He says that Skyward Mobile hopes to compete with larger companies by leveraging APX to build applications much more quickly than normal.

Nathan Eagle, an MIT research scientist who also develops mobile applications, says that there is a huge need in the developer community for tools that standardize application development across multiple devices. A successful tool of this type would give a developer access to hundreds of millions of phones and potential customers, Eagle says. Many companies are trying to solve the problem, he adds, including Adobe, whose Flash Lite platform is built into the hardware of many modern devices.

Tira Wireless’s Lau says he expects that the proliferation of different devices will continue to be a problem, because handset manufacturers will continue to build products aimed at different segments of the market. While Lau believes that the type of approach Skyward Mobile uses can get rid of many problems associated with supporting different devices, he is concerned that building layers of abstraction onto devices may not allow applications to take full advantage of special functions that those devices may have. Tira Wireless specializes in individually converting and tailoring applications to different phones.

For now, consumers can purchase individual Skyward Mobile applications through Sprint and Cingular, as well as directly from the company through its website. De Bonet says that another version of APX is launching soon that will bring applications to Verizon customers as well. In the future, the company may take advantage of its system to sell bundles of applications or subscriptions–an obvious next step since all the company’s applications install the same software on a handset. Although the company may someday allow other developers to build onto its platform, De Bonet says, it’s keeping the technology for its own use for now.

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