PalmSource Inc. looks to have the open-source community in its corner as it comes out swinging at established contenders for a share of the growing mobile handset market. But analysts were unclear on how PalmSources Linux move will shake out for the operating system and for its customers, including sibling palmOne Inc.
“Were going head-to-head with Microsoft [Corp.s] Windows Mobile and Symbian [Ltd.],” Chris Dunphy, director of product marketing at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based PalmSource, said in an interview with eWEEK.com.
PalmSource on Wednesday said it had acquired China MobileSoft Ltd., a developer of mobile phone software based in Nanjing, China. In addition to a variety of applications for smart phones, the company offers mLinux, a compact version of Linux for smart phones, and mFone, a software platform for less-expensive phones.
The company hopes to attract phone vendors with an established mobile applications platform, new media frameworks and, of course, its tested interface. It now can leverage the distributed support for chip sets and drivers available from the open-source community.
Customers leaning toward Linux “will get the help they need with applications and layers, and still get all the community aspects that Linux brings to bear,” he said.
According to Dunphy, the company will migrate its Cobalt 6.1 APIs to the Palm OS for Linux, while continuing support for Cobalt 6.0 and Palm OS 5, or Garnet. While keeping its upper-level application frameworks proprietary, such as those for multimedia and security, the foundation work will be released under an “appropriate open-source license,” he said.
However, analysts werent altogether upbeat on PalmSources plan to use a Linux-based OS for Palm devices. The move has implications for the Palm brand, for developers and for end-users.
“As for PalmSource, its a move they had to make. OS shipments have been declining steadily, and there has been little interest in Palm OS Cobalt,” said Todd Kort, principal analyst at Gartner Inc., of Stamford, Conn.
?”> But a number of Cobalt-based smart phones are in the process of entering the market, David Limp, senior vice president of corporate and business development at PalmSource, told eWEEK.com. He said some of the forthcoming models will be based on Cobalt 6.0, which shipped to licensees at the end of last year, as well as on Version 6.1.
“Porting Palm applications to Linux will take at least a year, and in the transition period, both palmOne and PalmSource are likely to experience some difficulties in the market—whether they want to continue to support the other platforms as they have before,” Gartners Kort said.
“They will still have to maintain efforts with the Garnet and Cobalt OSes, but that means juggling more balls, and its more likely that something will be dropped.”
In addition, PalmSource might face more difficulties using Linux than expected, Kort said. While the perception of the open-source platform is that its a free-spirited being that can be used by anyone with the desire, he warned that that is not necessarily the case.
“The problem with Linux is that it has no master. Every vendor has their own version of Linux. Its a myth that it [Linux] runs everywhere,” he said. “Given that [PalmSofts new partner] China MobileSoft is a small company, its going to take a lot of resources to promote that as a major flavor of Linux.”
Kort also chided the software companys announcement for its affect on palmOne. “Its very bad for PalmOne because its in the middle of the Christmas selling season, and its sister company has thrown lots of fear and uncertainty into the market.”
On the other hand, analyst Carl Zetie with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. took a more positive stance on the switchover. He said the Linux kernel will allow PalmSource and its OEM customers to create high-end devices and also to find entry into the lower-end, high-volume part of the market, such as ordinary cell phones.
“Its also good news for palmOne and their relationship with PalmSource,” Zetie said. “Some people have been speculating for a long time that PalmOne would abandon Palm OS and PalmSource for Linux—that would have been disastrous. Now we can stop worrying about that.”
Kort agreed that the new move means PalmSource has the potential to hit it big in the wider mobile phone sector.
“Roughly 650 million phones sold this year, and probably 17 million of those are smart phones,” he said. “So, thats already bigger than 12 million units for PDA market and 5 million for the Palm OS market.”
PDA developers and users will see changes as well, though its too early to tell how drastic the changes will be, he added.
“Developers will, in the short term, continue to support Palm OS, but Im not sure what proportion of the Palm developers have experience with Linux or intention of porting their skills to work with Linux,” Kort said.
For Zetie, however, if the Palm OS can operate over Linux, developers wont need to make such a huge switch.
“If PalmSource can do what its promised to do, it allows an army of existing Palm developers to target a high-end platform, and it allows Linux developers to target other devices,” he said.