Apple and Palm alliance emerges

Building machines, wireless Internet access services, all sorts of groovy stuff together

Palm Computing's scheme to license its Palm handheld technology, outlined at Comdex by various Palm and 3Com officials, seems to have borne its first fruit -- Apple has entered into a "strategic relationship" with the company. According to "Apple sources" quoted on Mac-oriented Web site MacOS Rumours, Apple and Palm are to build a co-branded machine based on the PalmOS with modifications from the Mac maker, whose industrial design team, responsible for the iMac and the forthcoming El Capitan minitower casing, will provide the hardware look and feel. Apple is currently working on its consumer portable, codenamed P1, a notebook alternative to the iMac. There has been plenty of talk recently about P1, in particular its rumoured wireless Internet access capacity. Palm, of course, beat Apple to it. The Palm VII, announced last week at Palm's Worldwide Developers Conference (see 3Com unveils wireless-equipped Palm VII), uses a cellular link to transmit email and Web pages between the Palmtop and the Internet. Given the apparent similarity between the two technologies, we suspect the companies may have been working together for some time. Last month, Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs revealed in Fortune magazine that he had attempted to buy Palm from its parent 3Com. 3Com CEO Eric Benhamou turned Jobs down, but it now looks like they did agree to co-operate on certain technologies. Whether that agreement came before or after Bill Gates' own attempt to buy Palm, also rejected by Benhamou, isn't known. This Apple/Palm alliance would certainly explain the latter's sudden interest in the Mac. While it has always offered a Mac-to-PalmPilot connectivity kit, called MacPac, it had fallen some way behind the Windows release. Earlier this year, it bought Organizer, a PIM published by Claris, the Apple subsidiary folded into the parent not long after, and shortly announced a much-updated MacPac 2.0, which has just gone beta. Can we see a pattern emerging here? Going further back, what makes the PalmPilot so effective is its Graffiti text entry system. Graffiti was, of course, developed for Apple's MessagePad because the Newton OS' handwriting recognition was too processor intensive and, more to the point, didn't work very well at that stage. Apple subsequently improved Newton's ability to convert handwriting into text, but the processor overhead remained. Which is why MessagePad's required top-spec. ARM CPUs, while the PalmPilot has been able to work with Motorola chips that are far less powerful and cheaper. The trouble with Newton was that it wasn't yet ready for the mainstream. Its hardware requirements made it too expensive, allowing the cheaper PalmPilot to rush in and grab the market. In fact, the Palm VII is near as damnit what former Apple CEO John Sculley originally described as his vision for a PDA (this before Apple officially announced Newton). Newton was going to some time to become a mainstream, consumer platform, and would still have to compete with Palm when it did. So, Jobs clearly seems to have reasoned, I kill Newton, embrace Palm and I can have a cheap Mac-connectable PDA now, not four years down the line. Thus was the technology alliance born. And Jobs' vision of a networked world, a vision he shares with his old chum, Larry Ellison, and which found form in the iMac (which will, curiously, boot up from a server and display a MacNC logo...), is thoroughly in harmony with that of Network Satan 3Com. Benhamou's Comdex comments point to a kind of Internet access appliance role for the PalmPilot as it evolves away from its PIM beginnings. Back to the present day, and we have a neat wireless technology that can connect both notebooks and palmtops to the Internet, using clever proprietary protocols to minimise bandwidth and thus airtime but which wrap around the standard TCP/IP set to maintain compatibility. Apple gets access to a device whose concept it pioneered but which it failed to capitalise upon. Palm gets access to the leading PC design team. Both get to share technologies key to the evolution of both platforms in the face of Wintel and Windows CE. Nice deal all round, really. ®

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