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The Euro Vision: Ideaworks3D, Tao Lead The OpenKODE Charge

As the mobile industry meets for its 3GSM trade show, in this week's 'The Euro Vision' column, Jon Jordan considers two UK mobile companies who are in the vanguard of overcoming the device fragmentation problem, thanks to the newly released OpenKODE mobil
Sometimes I wonder if we in the games industry don't get a little overwhelmed by our own perceived importance. After all, we’re bigger than Hollywood, as well as being responsible for juvenile delinquency and obesity. Take a step back to gauge a wider view of the world and our relative financial irrelevance becomes quickly apparent however. Reading the paper the other day, I came across an article about the European telecoms industry; reckoned to be worth a mere €270 billion ($353 billion) a year. Now, obviously that figure encapsulates a lot of different services; potentially everything from fixed line to mobile calls as well as broadband connectivity. Still it throws the annual $30 billion spent worldwide on games into sharp relief. Such thoughts have been furthered by the impressively named 3GSM World Congress, which is currently being held in Barcelona. The annual trade shindig of the mobile phone crowd, it's their equivalent of GDC mixed with E3 plus a touch of DICE, so there's been an avalanche of press releases from the hundreds of companies attending. One in particular caught my attention. At first sight, it doesn't seem like much: "Khronos Releases OpenKODE 1.0 Specification for Mobile Rich Media Applications". Indeed, you could argue as a title it's the antithesis of what a press release headline should be. But picking apart the background and terminology reveals something quite significant. More Handsets, More Problems OpenKODE is the latest attempt of the mobile entertainment sector to try to square standardisation circle in terms of matching content development and handset technology fragmentation. It's a problem which has always dogged the industry, but the sheer variation of handsets, chips, and operating systems within the market has now become a serious obstacle to growth. While highend smartphones have the sort of 3D hardware that can run PlayStation 2-quality games (in graphical terms at least), the more numerous feature phones are stuck with underpowered chips and low quality Java implementations. Hence the situation mobile phone developers find themselves in is the equivalent of trying to make games for computers ranging from Windows 95-class hardware through to Vista, plus Macs and various exotic flavours of Linux machines. Small wonder SKU counts for mobile games can be measured in the thousands. Which is why OpenKODE exists. Created by the Khronos Group, an industry consortium of handset manufacturers, chip makers, middleware companies and content developers which oversees open technical standards for devices ranging from PCs to embedded systems, the specification is a technology standard for all those companies to meet in future. "OpenKODE is important because it rounds out the API set that Khronos has been developing," reckons Thor Gunnarsson, vice president and general manager at UK mobile developer Ideaworks3D. Previous to OpenKODE, other Khronos standards have included OpenGL ES, used by PlayStation 3 amongst other devices, as well as OpenVG for hardware accelerated vector graphics, OpenMAX for video, and OpenSL. Khronos also now oversees the Collada digital assets exchange format, as well as the main OpenGL graphics library. "OpenKODE completes the API set, making the Khronos APIs analogous to DirectX, so it's a very important standard for the industry," Gunnarsson says. It means it should be much easier to port games and applications between Linux, Brew, Symbian, Windows Mobile, WIPI and RTOS-based platforms in future. Build Once, Deploy Almost Everywhere So with the specification released, what happens next? Obviously companies can provide feedback, but considering many have been involved in drafting the standard in the first place, the main point will be to get mobile middleware ratified as conforming with it. Interestingly, of the four companies in the vanguard of this process, two are from the UK. Ideaworks3D made a big splash last year with the announcement of its Airplay 3.0 development and deployment system. It works as an abstraction layer is created from each supported phone, allowing developers to create a single binary that works across hundreds of devices. The other UK company quick to support the technology is Tao (pronounced Dao). It supports different phones using its intent virtual machine. This can be downloaded onto smartphones or embedded within the more basic feature phones, providing a greater range of coverage compared to the more advanced-focused Airplay. Similarly though, content developers using intent and its optimised GamePlayer technology, only need to create a single binary version of their game, which will automatically run on supported devices. Unlike Airplay, Tao doesn't plan to carry out the low level device support itself. "We can do it, but we provide the technology so anyone can do it," says Mike Foss, Tao's engineering managing director. "It might be that phone manufacturers or system integrators want to carry that out." Both companies, together with Japanese technology providers Acrodea and Aplix, now have to get their technologies through the conformance testing process, before they can use the OpenKODE trademark. More importantly though is the question of whether OpenKODE itself will kickstart the current £1.5 billion ($2.9 billion) mobile games market to reach its predicted £5 billion ($10 billion) level by 2010. After all there have been previously attempts. The much vaunted Mobile 3D Graphics API (aka JSR 184), which were games-focused extensions to the Java technology, failed to gain much traction with handset manufacturers and operators. Hopefully though, as a more robust technology foundation with broader support within the industry OpenKODE will, at least, provide a foundation within which companies can both co-operate and compete to grow the size of the overall mobile entertainment cake. And if the wider telecoms industry is anything to go by, it’s a cake that could quickly become bigger and more tasty than the traditional games sector. [Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. In another career, he is a co-founder of UK mobile games site Pocket Gamer.]

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