Handset makers look to over-the-air software upgrades

Cellular telephone carriers NTT DoCoMo and SK Telecom have begun offering their users the ability to upgrade the firmware of...

Cellular telephone carriers NTT DoCoMo and SK Telecom have begun offering their users the ability to upgrade the firmware of their handsets over the air. The services are believed to be the first of their kind.

The NTT DoCoMo service began on 17 October and was developed to make fixing the software glitches in handsets less of a burden for users.

Previously, users had to visit a DoCoMo shop to have the software in their phones updated when a bug was identified, but now that can be done over the air, said Tomoko Honma, a spokeswoman for the carrier.

Compatible handsets are already on sale and will support over-the-air updates, she said.

The system will also save the carriers money through reduced workload for shop staff.

Over the past two years NTT DoCoMo has been forced to offer software updates or free handset replacements to millions of customers after problems with several of its handsets.

Last year, a bug in Toshiba handsets caused the phones to lose the ability to receive e-mail when in battery-saving mode, and in October 2001 the company replaced 1,500 NEC-made handsets because of the possibility of data being erased from the handset memory.

The problem of buggy code is growing because the amount of code in handsets is increasing as features are added and capabilities improved.

Over-the-air supplier Bitfone has developed a system called mProve to enable such updating. The company, which includes as its investors Nokia Venture Partners, Motorola and the venture unit of Orange, see a big future for such platforms, said Carla Fitzgerald, vice-president of marketing at Bitfone.

MProve is the base of the system in use in South Korea with SK Telecom and the company has also two deals with handset makers, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications and Motorola.

Each carrier is expected to offer handsets featuring mProve sometime next year.

Typically the carrier will notify users when new firmware is available and allow the user to accept or decline the update. If accepted, the handset does not download an entirely new version of the software but an update file which contains instructions on changes that need to be made to bring the software up to date, she said. By sending just the update details the file can be made much smaller.

The service deployed by SK Telecom will, initially, work with one model of handset, because its phones use proprietary operating systems, but will steadily be ported to others.

Martyn Williams writes for IDG News Service

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