Mobile application developer Che Metcalfe got so fed up with the limitations of mobile phones and network operators for distributing content that he built a network platform of his own.

Now available in a beta trial, the Podmo network developed by Metcalfe’s Adelaide-based company, Kukan Studio, uses Bluetooth hotspots to deliver mobile content such as film clips, MP3s and multiplayer games, messaging and even free VoIP to Bluetooth equipped handsets. Just as importantly, Kukan has also developed a content delivery platform that removes the problem content developers face in having to rewrite their content for the many different mobile phones available.

Metcalfe says the high charges that telecommunications companies levy for downloading content outside of their own portals is stifling development of the Australian mobile content industry.

“I wanted to find a way around them, so we could create a more community-based network that we didn’t have to pay the telco for and that the telco didn’t have control over,” Metcalfe says. “There is a Catch 22 thing going on, in that the telcos have invested a lot of money in their 3G networks and they want to make their money back through data charges, but until they lower their data charges no one is going to use their services.”

The Podmo network links Bluetooth hotspots, through which consumers can access a range of services. Both the server software and the client software that manages content have been developed by Kukan. It has also created a search application, miniNAV, and a transport journey planner, miniTRAN. More applications will follow as the network moves through its beta period. Metcalfe says Kukan will also invite other application developers to create content for the network.

“It’s like a YouTube for mobile, allowing people to set up their own mobile telecommunications,” Metcalfe says. “You can buy a Bluetooth dongle from us and download our free server software to your computer, then you become a Podmo node. So if you are a retailer, we can give you some space on that Podmo node so you can serve up your own advertising content and media.”

While miniNAV and miniTRAN were built in 2002 and 2004 respectively, work on the Podmo network and application itself did not start until mid 2006, with full production commencing in September. The beta launched in February, ahead of a version 1.0 deployment within months. Metcalfe estimates that total costs for Podmo have come to AU$1 million so far. The company is planning to launch 50 Bluetooth hotspots around Adelaide, called Bluezones.

A fulltime development team of eight people developed the Podmo client and server software, including a billing engine and some of the content, and are now working on the instant messenger client. Kukan has also chosen to create its own mark-up language for Podmo, similar to WAP and HTML. The server technology behind Podmo has all been developed on Linux, with Java and JSP used to handle the Web components.

Kukan senior programmer Ben Tilbrook says the client software is based on Java Mobile Edition and jSRE, an open source Java tool for relation extraction for integrating with the Bluetooth API. Development has been assisted by the Sun Wireless Toolkit.

“Really it’s all just Java code, so each of us has our own preference on what text editor we use, and there are no overly complex programs we use to develop — this is mainly writing code,” Tilbrook says. “We all tend to use free tools wherever we can. There is no tool with a WYSIWYG interface that allows us to build this stuff.”

Graphics were created using the Adobe tools FireWorks and PhotoShop, with Autodesk’s Maya for three-dimensional elements.

Metcalfe says the whole project has only been possible as a result of the skills his company acquired after several years spent porting games to different handsets for international publishers including EA and THQ.

“Web designers think they have a hard job designing for three different browser and two different screen sizes — they’re pretty much kidding themselves,” Metcalfe says. “In mobile you’ve got many, many different screen sizes, many different processors, many different memories, and many different JAR sizes.”

The situation is not helped by the ongoing extension and development of the Java Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP) standard itself. MIDP is at its second revision, and already customisation work is occurring with some handset manufacturers. At the same time, developers need to ensure that new games and applications are backwards compatible with the more restricted MIDP1 standard. A third variation is not out of the question.

Hence Metcalfe says Kukan has leaned many lessons that help to streamline the development and deployment of its own software across multiple handsets.

“When we design things to go on screen we take into account the screen size, and do things dynamically so that they can have one lot of code that will hopefully work on as many different size devices as we can,” Metcalfe says. “Luckily we have all of this expertise in house because we have done porting for some time.”