3Com opens PalmOS to developers

But it's still way, way off becoming Open Source

3Com subsidiary Palm Computing announced yesterday at the Palm Worldwide Developers Conference (DevCon) that it will open the PalmOS source code to third-party developers. Details of how developers will gain access to the code and what they'll be allowed to do with it are scare, but that hasn't stopped many members of the Open Source community from leaping up and down, hallooing Palm's name to the reverberate hills, and predicting a flood of cheap Palm clones rustled up by developers who can now eaily port PalmOS to their hardware. But does this make sense for Palm? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, no. As some cannier Open Source supporters have pointed out, there's a big difference between allowing developers to see how the APIs they write to work, and allowing them to tinker with those APIs and the code code behind them, even in some kind of moderated environment a la Linux. So why talk about opening up the PalmOS source code? Palm has now reached the stage where it has proved itself as a viable platfrom. It has rushed ahead to become, as 3Com CEO Eric Benhamou said at Comdex, 3Com's fastest-growing product line, and now it's time to consolidate that advance. One of the best ways of doing that is to begin widening the market for your product, and one of the best ways of doing that is to licensing it to third parties. And, indeed, Benhamou told Comdex attendees that Palm will soon begin an aggressive licensing programme, seeking partners who want to take the Palm platform into new markets. Going the whole hog and placing PalmOS in the Open Source space would speed up that process, but ultimately take control of it away from Palm, which isn't what the company wants. Even if it retains control of the hardware, it wouldn't be long before some enterprising programmer figures out a way of running PalmOS on, say, a Windows CE device. At that point Palm's revenue stream really begins to dry up, and since it's in the business of making money, it's clearly not going to be too keen on letting that happen. Instead, it makes the PalmOS source available to developers to allow them to extend the scope of their development efforts and to show that it doesn't want to restrict those efforts in any way other than retain ownership of the OS. So are there any circumstances where releasing PalmOS under an Open Source software licence makes sense? Probably not. The key benefit of Open Source is the vast array of development effort it unleashes. That's good for the platform, but as we've seen not so good for the developers of the hardware that the OS runs on. The only way for it to work for Palm is if the sale of its hardware isn't tied to the software -- in short, if the devices are so ubiquitous that manufacturers can compete on the basis of their products being better than other vendors'. Palm may sell a lot of machines now, but in such a volume commodity market it would have to sell a great deal more but at a considerably reduced margin. 3Com has never been a volume supplier, and it's hard to imagine it allowing the Palm platform ever become that kind of business. ®

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