Should Handspring Switch to Penguin Power?

eLABorations: Moving to Linux would give it access to a growing pool of dedicated, inventive developers.

I heard on the radio this morning that fishermen discovered a penguin in Alaska, a world away from its customary South American digs. The dispatch got me thinking about Linux and its disdain for remaining within the bounds of any single computing habitat.

Linuxs wandering ways have landed the open-source operating system onto all manner of processor-bearing devices. In addition to a considerable beachhead in the server space and smaller outposts on the desktop front, Linux now powers a variety of set-top boxes, network storage devices and other computing appliances from generally hardware-focused vendors.

While there are plenty of handheld Linux projects in progress, and even a few devices that run Linux by default, Linux wont be able to secure a solid spot in the handheld arena until high-profile vendors adopt the penguin for their devices.

How about Handspring? For future devices, Handspring could switch to a Linux platform, with a GUI based perhaps on Opie, an open-source handheld interface based on the QT/Embedded toolkit from Trolltech that currently appears on Sharps Zaurus SL-5500.

Among the major handheld device players, Handspring is perhaps uniquely positioned to embrace Linux and open source in its offerings. Although Palm was rumored to have weighed Linux as a foundation for the OS that would become Palm OS 5, an open source OS fits poorly with a firm looking to make money from software licensing. Microsoft seems to enjoy a tight grip on its Pocket PC OEMs, and the Windows CE OS that powers Pocket PC has undergone enough advances to keep Pocket PC vendors happy for a while.

Handspring is a hardware company that depends on Palm for its OS, an arrangement that worked well enough while handheld sales were booming and Palm was dragging its feet bringing innovations to own devices. However, its becoming increasingly important for device makers to differentiate themselves from their rivals—Palm and Handspring are two such rivals.

For example, while the Palm OS that Handspring licenses from Palmsource (Palms OS development arm) includes support for SD (Secure Digital) storage cards, the SDIO (SD I/O) support that devices such as Bluetooth modules require was developed by Palms hardware arm, and is unavailable to Handspring. As a Handspring product manager told me, if an SD-slot-bearing device like its Treo 90 were to support SDIO, Handspring would have to develop it itself. Handsprings best assets are its strong, recognizable brand name and its hardware design competencies. Handspring has also shown itself to be a real hardware innovator, but love for its own innovations hasnt prevented the company from cutting its losses and pursuing new directions as conditions dictate. Im thinking here chiefly of the Springboard slot, which didnt quite take the world by storm as intended, and is now being phased out of Handsprings lineup.

A move to Linux would mean parting ways with the large developer community and software catalog that accompanies the Palm OS. In return, however, Handspring gains access to at least as large (and potentially much larger) pool of developers—a pool that has time and again demonstrated its fervor and inventiveness.