PalmSource Expanding Choices

PalmSource pushing diversity in Palm OS and company.

PalmSource Inc. has a new strategy focused on multitasking, both within its new operating system and within the company as a whole.

While the handheld software maker plans to make a big splash with its upcoming version of Palm OS, it will keep marketing, supporting and tweaking the current version. "Were really trying to drive as much diversity of devices as possible," said Michael Mace, chief competitive officer at PalmSource, in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Were convinced that one size does not fit all. Were trying to make sure the OS is a great foundation for all sorts of types of devices."

To that end, the company is changing the way it labels its operating system. From now on, new versions of Palm OS will have a name, not a number. Palm OS 6.0, which shipped to licensees at the end of last year, is now called Cobalt. An update to Palm OS 5.0, which shipped to licensees earlier this month, is known as Garnet.

"People are conditioned to think higher numbers are better," Mace said. "In this case, were expecting the two to be in the marketplace at the same time. There was always a lot of overlap with older versions of the operating system. Were just being more explicit about it—saying it rather than just letting it happen. Garnet is fine for existing users. Cobalt is about expanding the market."

Not all devices have the capability to support Cobalt, Mace said. A device running it needs at least 16MB of ROM and RAM and a 200MHz ARM9 processor, as well as a memory managing unit. Garnet, which is technically Palm OS 5.4, has the same system requirements as current OS 5.0 devices—8MB of ROM and RAM and a 70MHz ARM processor.

Cobalt includes a tab system that makes it easier to find contact information without scrolling, Mace said.

But the most anticipated feature of the operating system has been its ability to run more than one application at once, and the company took advantage of the multitasking feature in Cobalts design. A new status bar lets users adjust screen brightness or check signal strength and battery life without leaving an application. Licensees can add icons to the bar.

Cobalt supports what Mace called a "pluggable communications framework," meaning its easier for licensees to plug in support for new wireless standards. For end users, this means, for instance, the ability to make a phone call on the device while using it to download Web information via a wireless LAN connection.

Cobalt also supports soft Graffiti, meaning the user can close down the handwriting recognition field when it is not in use. Licensees have added this feature in the past, but this is the first time it has come standard on the operating system.

As with previous versions of the operating system, Cobalt will use Graffiti 2.0, which is based on Communication Intelligence Corp.s Jot software. PalmSources decision to license Jot a year ago followed a 1997 lawsuit in which Xerox Corp., of Stamford, Conn., successfully claimed the first version of Graffiti infringed on a Xerox handwriting recognition technology patent.

Since then, customers have complained that Graffiti 2.0 is inferior to its predecessor. Christopher Bell, chief technology officer of People2People Group, in Boston, said his data entry speed fell with the new version of Graffiti and said it was almost impossible to use on an airplane because the system couldnt handle the slightest bump.

Mace said licensees are free to toy with the software to make it feel more like the old version. "Because its based on software, if a developer wants to replace it with something else, they can do that easily," he said. When asked if this was a way to work around the Xerox suit, he said, "Ive learned not to comment on anything legal."

Cobalt ships standard with both a video and audio player, which can run in the background now that the system supports multitasking.

For securitys sake, Cobalt includes new management capabilities. These include a trusted desktop feature that addresses the fact that many users synchronize their Palm OS devices at work and at home. Now IT managers can control enterprise synchronization such that if a user synchronizes at home, only the personal applications will be downloaded to the home PC.

Cobalt is expected to ship in devices later this year.

As for Garnet, "most of the features are things that will help licensees with time to market," Mace said. Garnet includes support for soft Graffiti. In addition, it supports a 240-by-320-pixel-per-inch screen resolution and includes tweaks to the networking and synchronization features of Palm OS 5.0, and it improves on Short Message Service capabilities. Garnet devices are also due later this year.