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Sony, Palm deal set to expand PalmOS horizons – and then some

Not just an organiser OS any more

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Analysis Sony and Palm today announced what's possibly the most far-reaching deal the handheld computer vendor has yet made. At its most basic, the partnership allows Sony to offer Palm-based devices, and gives Palm its most prominent supporter, but the pair's agreement to co-operate on the extension of the PalmOS is anything but basic. According to the two companies' joint statement, Sony will license the PalmOS and use it to develop "an entirely new line of handheld electronics products that will not be limited to electronic organisers but are expected to include a wide range of mobile wireless telecommunications-enabled AV/IT consumer electronics products". That's good news for Palm. It has been trying hard to find licensees willing to take its technology out of the organiser market but, with the notable exception of Qualcomm's PDQ cellphone, has largely failed to do so. Even the (ultimately) customisable Handspring Visor is still just an organiser with ideas above its station. What's also good is getting a vote of support from a company not only of Sony's stature but one that's also a Windows CE licensee. Sony appears to have been largely dissatisfied with CE, but its shift to Palm is more than a snub to Microsoft, just as it's much more a boost to the Palm Platform than simply ensuring there'll soon be even more PalmOS-compatible devices out there. The key to the deal lies in the degree of collaboration between the principals. Sony's licence goes beyond taking the Palm Platform as defined by the 3Com subsidiary by allowing the Japanese giant to modify the PalmOS to incorporate its own technologies, which will then be made available to all the other PalmOS licensees. That's pretty damn radical -- you can't imagine Microsoft letting Sony do that, much less sharing the results with Compaq, Casio, et al -- but that's only the half of it. The example Sony and Palm give of this collaborative venture is the addition of support for Sony's 'solid-state floppy' technology, Memory Stick. Both companies will work together to modify the PalmOS accordingly, and presumably Palm will tinker with the Palm's hardware to add a Memory Stick slot or two to the spec. In addition, the two will build in support for other Sony technologies. Though none are named, we suspect they're look at IEEE1394 (or iLink as Sony calls it); Sony's digital content protection scheme, MagicGate; and possibly even MiniDisc support. Sony's vision centres on networked consumer electronics kit connected not only to each other but to the wider Net, the source for all the digital movies and audio we're all going to be watching and listening too five years or so down the line. The missing component from all this is its extension to mobile scenarios -- whether that's controlling networked systems while the user is moving around his or her house, or outside of it. This is clearly where Palm fits in, providing the same access to the Net when the user is on the move, as, say, the PlayStation 2 does while he or she is at home. Last week, Sony and Sun announced their ongoing collaboration on the development of the software infrastructure that makes all this device connectivity and interoperation work. Their approach centres on the Home AV Interface (HAVi), one part of which is the use of remote control devices that can, say, tell the VCR to record a programme and tell it to source the broadcast from the TV's receiver. It's not hard to see a Palm-style device providing that visual front-end. It's equally easy to see it functioning as a mobile music player for all those digital music files you've downloaded, either to play back on the move or listen to in the living room through your hi-fi. But we're not talking about simply building in MP3 features into a Palm, but to build Palm functionality into an MP3 player. Or a MiniDisc player. Or a cellphone. You choose the device that best suits your needs, but whatever you choose, you'll be able to keep track of your personal data with it at the same time. The upshot for Palm is that its product finally becomes a true, generic platform rather than a one species of organiser. Licensees will be able to take the PalmOS and not only build a Palm III clone, but create the basis for a whole range of embedded applications. But there's more. Unlike the IT business, the consumer electronics market is far more open to adopting technologies developed by rivals -- it's a business that likes to compete on products rather than the technologies underlying them. If Sony can make its network vision work, there's a good chance that other vendors will support it so they can sell kit to the same customers Sony is targeting. There's no guarantee they would necessarily choose Palm too, but there's a good chance many of them will. ®

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