We speak to middleware specialist CRI's Tomonori Haba

Smart thinking

With the iPhone still stealing developers’ hearts across the world, is it a market ripe for middleware exploitation? Ed Fear spoke to the head of CRI Middleware’s new smartphone division, Tomonori Haba, to talk iPhone, the smartphone future and Japan as a middleware market…

Why has CRI chosen to enter the smartphone market now?

At CRI we’ve been offering middleware for home consoles and arcade machines for over ten years, starting with the FM-Towns and expanding to systems such as the Saturn, Dreamcast, PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, and now PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PSP and DS. However, we weren’t particularly active in the mobile arena. There were a lot of companies that already specialised in middleware for Java or Brew developers, and we didn’t really see the benefit of being the last person to the party.

However, recently there’s been a real push towards open mobile platforms, and the specs of phones have really advanced too – they’re now powerful enough to be considered as entertainment devices. I saw this and realised that the time had come for CRI to port its movie, audio and compression solutions to mobile platforms, and so started the smartphone division.

The launch of the iPhone in Japan was also a big reason behind us establishing the division, I think, but we’re not just looking to offer our middleware on iPhone – we want to be able to support Android, Windows Mobile, Symbian OS and all other smartphone platforms. And we’re not just offering middleware, either – we plan to expand into helping produce and develop iPhone, iPod Touch and other smartphone apps, as well as help with all kinds of promotion and business matchmaking.

Do you think that those other smartphone platforms hold much potential for game developers?

I think that all of the smartphone platforms hold equal potential for the future. It’s just that the huge success of the iPhone has been seized upon as a great phenomenon – and a very encouraging one at that.

The operating systems that smartphones run on are being used more and more outside of the smartphone industry – various machines are being developed that run on Android, for example, and of course the iPod Touch runs on the iPhone OS even though it’s not a phone. So, in that regard, the word ‘phone’ doesn’t actually matter that much. We think that the smartphone OS industry isn’t bound to things made specifically for phones, but can be applied to all sorts of digital gadgets and machines.

You’ve performed a number of surveys about smartphone development – what have you learnt about the Japanese market’s attitude to the iPhone?

One interesting thing that came up from the survey was just who is actually developing the iPhone apps within studios. I figured it would have been those teams that work on the PSP or DSi, or maybe Java or BREW teams if they had those. But, looking at the results, more frequently it was the console teams – PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii – that were doing it.

I thought this was interesting, so decided to investigate further. I think that they don’t think of it as just being a phone or as a mobile platform, but as one of the many digital distribution platforms alongside XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, DSiWare and PSPgo. So, I think that developers are looking at the iPhone as a base platform for downloadable content and games. When you decide to make a digitally distributed game, in order to minimise the risk involved and get it in front of as many people as possible, it’s natural to think of doing it on multiple platforms. I think that’s why there’s more console teams making iPhone games than mobile teams. I’m interested to see whether this is just a trend in Japan, or whether it’s something that’s the same the world over.

Are there things that are turning developers off the iPhone?

One of the barriers is that, to develop for iPhone, you have to use a Mac. The truth is, only a few of those Japanese game developers surveyed had experience of developing with Macs – only 23 per cent. 64 per cent had no experience but did want to work on iPhone. This is really important: it shows that the Mac is making inroads into game development, but also that literacy with Macs is a problem. I think that’s an aspect with which our solutions can help.

Are you planning to localise your smartphone middleware into English?

Yeah, it’s on the radar. Because we’re a Japanese company, we tend to create products first and foremost for Japanese developers, but we want to share our technology with developers in the US and Europe too. If we get a lot of requests, it’ll certainly expedite the development of an English version, so please do get in contact if you’re interested.

What types of middleware are iPhone developers looking for?

From those we surveyed, the most demanded type of middleware was audio middleware – around 50 per cent. We think that our established solutions, CRI ADX and CRI Audio, can support this. In addition, given that only apps under 10MB can be downloaded over-the-air, developers need to compress all of their data – not just audio and video – which is where our general purpose compression system FileMajik Pro can help. Finally, a really big area in demand is for movie playback. The current SDK’s support for playing back video is limited, and so we’ve made our CRI Sofdec available on the platform, which gives more freedom and extends the scope for playback.

You recently teased a new piece of middleware called Cloudia – can you tell us anything about what it might be?

I can’t say too much at the moment, but… if I was to explain it simply, as the name suggests, it’s linked to the ‘cloud’. In other words, it’s a marketing support tool that links together apps and servers. It’s marketing middleware, but in a cloud form.

The middleware we’ve created so far has been geared towards developers, helping increase the quality of audio or solutions for playing movies. CLOUDIA, on the other hand, is perhaps more geared towards producers. Developers working on a number of products won’t necessarily achieve good sales on all of them. It’s a plan to get those difficult-to-notice apps in front of more people. We’ll be able to say more in the autumn, I think.

Japan has traditionally been seen as a difficult market for middleware makers to break. Do you think that there’s still a reticence amongst Japanese developers when it comes to adopting middleware?

In the console market, there has certainly been a section of the Japanese industry that’s been cautious about adopting middleware, and have been skeptical as to the real practical benefits and results – but that situation is changing.

Game development has become a gigantic undertaking, and so as the cost of development has suddenly skyrocketed, developers want to be more efficient. In that sort of environment, more and more people are using middleware. In addition to that tailwind, there’s an attitude starting to permeate through the industry that more time should be spent on planning, the ‘pursuit of fun’ and the actual content itself – and that can be done by using middleware, as European and US developers do. According to a survey we did some time ago, 95 per cent of game developers want to introduce or use middleware. This figure is the best proof that Japanese developers really are changing.

Originally, Japan has been able to boast that it was the birthplace of game culture. It’s a country particularly skilled at producing innovative games – titles that are full of ideas – and I think it’s also been particularly good at creating small-scale titles on handhelds. So, if you consider this skill at small- to medium-scale development as a speciality, then Japanese game development culture is still applicable in the smartphone space. Compared to the tough head-on fight between Japan and an entertainment giant like America in the console space, in the smartphone market I think Japanese developers have a huge advantage.


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