Friday, November 26, 2004

Roaming charges: Taken with BREW

BREW's certified security
The first thing folks at Qualcomm want known about the BREW system is that it has many checkpoints built into it, and not all of them are aimed at filtering the types of apps that get distributed. Some are technical (a BREW application does not run on a handset without a specially assigned ID number, for example), while others are structural. But, first and foremost, Qualcomm plays traffic cop with commercial developers, preventing anyone not meeting its criteria from disseminating a product over the carrier networks.

The fact that Qualcomm uses criteria at all flies in the face of how most developers work. While Sun Microsystems developed the functional specs of the Java platform and its J2ME variant, it doesn't try to officiate which Java-based apps get released. Qualcomm does, and for very specific reasons. It wants to guarantee to the carrier (which is really the end customer to Qualcomm) that BREW-based apps won't harm their networks or the handsets that use them. It's an attractive proposition for the carriers, having quality control as part of the process, and I understand that it can be portrayed as a competitive advantage compared to uncertified programs. It is a radical change in how apps are developed. But then, so is the whole Qualcomm distribution model. When was the last time a language proponent delivered the end product to the distribution channel?

One of Qualcomm's criteria is that commercial BREW developers are required to obtain and maintain (at $400 a year) a Class 3 digital certificate from Verisign. (Note that this is the standard Verisign fee, not Qualcomm's.) This simple requirement serves two major purposes: Qualcomm can use the certificate to derive the unique ID that it assigns to a developer's apps for "non-repudiation," and it adds some assurance (because Verisign does some background checks) that the developer is part of a true business and not a malware generator.

Qualcomm insists that it wants its SDK to be accessible to a wide range of developers and projects, including the "two-guys-working-at-night-in-a-garage" company. But it also wants to ensure that developers using BREW will be around in six months to update or fix the apps that carriers are distributing. So, Qualcomm encourages the casual developer, but it won't do business with you unless you can prove you're serious.

Interestingly, the Qualcomm ecosystem never requires that you reveal your source code. The company might test it like crazy (for a price that starts around $1K per app), but it only uses the compiled binaries for the testing. Qualcomm just wants to see that your app fits into its parameters; it's not interested in how you coded the thing. The company says it doesn't want to compete with its own developers.

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