Motorola handset CEO will need software help

John Shinal · August 4, 2008 · Short URL:

New co-CEO Jha knows chips, but mobile growth is in off-deck apps

Sanjay JhaAs Motorola prepares to spin off its money-losing handset unit, it's chosen a chip expert to lead it.

Sanjay Jha, formerly COO of Qualcomm, was named Motorola co-CEO in advance of the handset business going it alone next year.

While the obvious focus on hardware design should help the ailing device maker pack more features into its handsets, what will Motorola's answer will be on the software side?

As Motorola plots its recovery in handsets, the mobile market is quickly becoming a place where applications are more important than features.

The most visible part of the trend is the iPhone platform at AT&T, where Apple's device is driving higher mobile revenue.

The driver of that growth is the enthusiasm of independent iPhone developers, whose games and other addictive apps boost usage of data service plans.

Given AT&T's experience, U.S. carriers are finally getting used to the idea that some of the most-profitable software on their phones may come not from their own deck.

The trend has been going on in Europe for some time.

"The European carriers have figured out that the growth is in off-deck apps," says Bill Scott of GetJar, whose platform has 50,000 active developers who pay the company each time their app is downloaded.

Wireless operators like Vodafone, Telecom Italia and 3Next have all set up Web sites for hosting third-party applications from upstart mobile software firms like Mig33 and eBuddy.

The creation of innovative off-deck apps is best done on platforms with enthusiastic developer communities like the iPhone's.

New co-CEO Jha of Motorola no doubt has some knowledge of BREW, which came out of work done by Qualcomm's handset unit when the company was still in that business earlier this decade. That unit was led by Paul Jacobs, now CEO of Qualcomm.

BREW has been adopted by carriers all over the globe, but a good portion of the apps on its platform come from big companies, including Adobe, Sega, Sony Pictures Mobile, IBM and others.

It's not an open platform. Neither is the iPhone's, of course, but when was the last time you saw a bunch of young developers getting jazzed about developing for BREW?

If Jha wants to re-establish Motorola as a player in the handset market, he's going to need good software expertise to pair with his experience in chip design.

And with Android and Symbian driving open-source development, and the iPhone sucking up all the oxygen among those developers willing to do develop for a proprietary platform, Motorola is going to need a vibrant developer community.

If it can't create one, it could find itself ignored by carriers looking for Web-based apps to drive data revenue.

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