PalmSource: Successfully Going Where Apple Feared to Tread

PalmSource on Tuesday announced new names for its Palm OS versions and detailed new capabilities. The company's moves in features, programming tools and licensing show that the break-away software operation is thriving away from its hardware sibling.

Hidden in the rhetoric of the announcements PalmSource made on Tuesday is an impressive series of accomplishments showing that the company is reaching its stride and beginning to execute.

These accomplishments are an indication that PalmSource is more than capable of competing with Microsoft. And by moving boldly onto a path Apple Computer was afraid to take—splitting its hardware and software operations—not only has Palm held market share, but the company is once again driving the handheld computer market.

One area where PalmSource is following Apple is in using named products. However, rather than using Apples rather limited, albeit more sensational, names of jungle cats, the company is using the names of precious and semi-precious stones. The first is "Garnet," a point release of Palm OS 5.

One of the most important changes to Palm OS 5, if youve been interested in the multimedia capabilities of the product, is support for enhanced resolutions up to QVGA, which is crucial for those projecting presentations off of Palm OS-based devices or reviewing high-resolution pictures or videos.

In addition, the dynamic input area is now collapsible, which frees up screen real estate if you are using a keyboard or viewing pictures. Like Apples Panther, a lot of the core improvements have to do with being able to better connect with Windows machines, and HotSync will be easier to set up and faster. Bluetooth support is also improved, making discovery and setup much easier (so you can sync without a cable).

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While none of these changes are earth-shattering, in total they do improve the overall experience and give a sense that future Palm devices will be much more capable of both multimedia playback and being used as stand-alone devices that can operate without a laptop or desktop computer (which builds on the joint Good Technology announcement I covered last week). This capability will start showing up on hardware over the next few months, and it will be worth your while to look for it.

"Cobalt," the name for Palm OS 6.0, is a major release. This release makes the Palm platform a mature OS that is capable of multitasking and handling multithreaded applications, and it provide full memory protection between applications written for it.

PalmSource will maintain its effort to be backward-compatible with older applications but, as with all major OS releases, it cant be taken for granted and some applications may break, so testing will be advised.

With the release of Cobalt, Palm is moving more aggressively to a stronger tool set, in this case the IBM version of the Eclipse environment, which was co-founded by Borland, IBM, Red Hat, Merant, QNX Software Systems and SuSE Linux. Eclipse is based on Java and is considered an open-source platform.

Cobalt also has some interesting user interface improvements that include improved graphics, better looking tabs, a customizable status bar and (finally) drag-and-drop file transfer.

The phone interface is sharply improved—not only is it much easier now for the hardware OEM to modify, but users can set up multiple simultaneous communications sessions and the standard dialer is tied to PIM applications. Some of this capability was already available on Handspring Treos, but now it will be available in all new Palm OS-based computers when Cobalt ships on new Palm-based phones after midyear.

A lot of the visible improvement done in Garnet will be carried to the next level: scalable fonts, free high-resolution support (it was an extra charge to OEMs before), and much richer graphics (think much more powerful games). Cobalt-based handhelds should provide an interesting alternative to Microsofts Portable Media Centers.

Enterprise buyers should see solid improvements as well. Protected memory separates the applications from each other, and PalmSource has implemented a trusted computing model ensuring, if used, that applications and data only come from trusted sources. Additional security modules for verification and encryption finish the package and, in total, appear to address what remains a significant concern for IT managers today.

The OS will now support up to 256MB each in RAM and ROM, which provides for much more robust applications and databases.

Outlook integration is improved, bringing with it closer parity to Microsofts own Mobile Windows platform.

Finally, this OS version also supports IPv6, which, while not critical today, will be critical for the future as the Internet expands.

Behind Tuesdays announcement was confirmation that Palm now has 13 licensees and has captured the major OEMs in China, considered to be one of the most powerful expanding markets. This includes the most powerful Legend Group, which was recently renamed "Lenovo."

When Palm split itself in two, dividing software and hardware development, many industry wags said the platform was doomed. All in all recent progress from PalmSource showcases that the decision to separate was a good one.

We can only imagine what would have happened had Apple the guts to do the same thing a few years ago.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.