Is Palms Slump Bad News for Developers?

Zframe, others still making wireless products that depend on Palm platform

Despite the scrapped merger deals and inventory problems plaguing Palm Inc., developers continue to add products to the Palm repertoire, though some are hedging their bets.

"Theyve had bad news, and theres not a lot we can do about it," said Scott Thompson, a product manager at DataViz Inc., a wireless synchronization company in Trumbull, Conn. Thompson acknowledged that although his company depends almost entirely on the success of Palm—Microsoft Corp. competes with DataViz, so DataViz doesnt support Pocket PC—its not always clear to him what Palm is trying to do.

"First they were about hot sync, and then they were about Extended Systems," Thompson said.

Most developers say they dont plan to scrap the Palm platform entirely, but recent events at the Santa Clara, Calif., company have made them take a closer look at where Palm fits in the enterprise. Recent inventory problems have been chalked up to bad timing. But when Palm announced it was buying Extended Systems Inc. earlier this year, Palm executives said the deal would be a deciding factor in pushing Palm full force into enterprise environments. Thus, when the merger fell through, some companies were concerned it could mean less enterprise support.

"It definitely has an effect on us to a degree," ThinAirApps Inc. CEO Jonathan Oakes said. "We have to take a step back and look at how we look at the market."

New York-based Thin- AirApps is branching out from selling out-of-the-box wireless access to enterprise applications and has created a module that enables developers to create their own such applications.

ThinAirApps is also branching out from Palm. In introducing its new Identicon DB module, the company made a point of saying the product will support both Sun Microsystems Inc.s J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition) and Research In Motion Ltd.s RIM platform—the former a platform primarily for cell phones and the latter designed for e-mail pagers—both of which compete with Palm. Developers are asking for both, company officials said.

The module helps programmers build wireless applications that interact with enterprise databases, including Oracle, DB2 and Microsoft SQL Server. The Java-based server engine handles protocol conversions, so that no server-side coding is necessary, as well as administrative functions.

Support for J2ME applications is slated to be available in beta tests this month, with support for the RIM platform due this summer.

But Palm still has a place in the vendors plans. "In terms of the enterprise, we still have companies calling us and saying theyre rolling out Palm VIIs or Palm Vs," Oakes said.

Other developers share that optimism about Palm.

Boston-area startup Zframe Inc. later this month will introduce to beta customers its namesake wireless browser.

The Zframe technology takes any Web page and shrinks it down to an identical copy on a handheld computer. The layout then becomes a navigational map controlled by the stylus. For example, using a menu that appears at the bottom of the screen, the user can move the stylus around the page to display pop-up hyperlinks, draw a box to zoom in on certain areas of the page, enter searches and fill out forms.

"Im very impressed with it," said Michael Steinberg, president of the New England Palm Users Group, in Boston. Steinberg intends to be part of the Zframe beta program, which launches June 26.

"As someone who likes regular browsing, the wireless browsers Ive seen before havent made it," he said.

Using the browser requires several steps, and the initial view of a scaled-down Web site can be problematic in that its too small to see whats what until a user starts tapping around with the stylus. But Steinberg said these things didnt bother him when his user group got a sneak peek at the technology last month.

"I dont think the learning curve will be too long," he said. "And if Im at all familiar with the site Im searching, then Ill know where to tap."

Zframes product portfolio will include both a content server and a client browser. By the end of the year, there will be a public commercial version of the browser that Zframe will host until it finds a bigger company to host it, as well as an enterprise intranet version that will sit behind corporate firewalls.

The beta version of the browser will support the Palm platform in both color and monochrome, with support for Microsofts Pocket PC platform coming by fall.

Zframe President John Robotham said he wasnt too concerned that the slowdown of the Palm economy will mean bad things for his company because publicity surrounding Palms recent problems has been more about hardware and partnerships than about the operating system itself.

"If you look at Palm, its just a simple matter of a bad product transition—preannouncing a product before its ready to ship," Robotham said, referring to Palms recent inventory problems. "It happens."

Palm is expected to make a comeback when it introduces the m700, an upgraded version of the Palm VII, later this year, sources said.

According to sources close to Palm, the m700 features "always on" technology, which will help it compete in the enterprise against RIMs BlackBerry wireless e-mail pager.