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Palm, DoCoMo begin joint development talks

iMode-equipped Palm VII on the way?

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Palm and Japan's biggest mobile phone company, DoCoMo, are exploring the development of a PalmOS-based Net-access oriented PDA for the Japanese market, according to a report in the Financial Times.

The discussions shouldn't surprise anyone. DoCoMo has been keen on Palm for some time, having already agreed with Palm's former parent, 3Com, back in June 1999 to conduct trials of a mobile data service based around the Palm VII wireless-enabled handheld.

Of course, much has happened since then: DoCoMo launched its own mobile Net access service, iMode, which has proved hugely popular despite the regularity with which its servers fall over. It has also continued to take a close interest in Symbian's EPOC smartphone-oriented operating system.

Symbian, for its part, has launched a Palm-killer platform called Quartz, but has held the olive branch out to Palm, initially through a Nokia-sponsored joint development programme to mount the PalmOS' user interface on top of EPOC.

That initiative can be viewed as the basis for the creation of a next-generation PalmOS. Senior Palm executives have noted the companies' interest in using ARM's 32-bit StrongARM CPU as the basis for its future devices, almost all of which are intended to offer wireless Net access as standard. The PalmOS will need some serious recoding to allow all that to happen, and a deal with Symbian to merge PalmOS and EPOC would speed that process up, and get Palm into cellphone markets.

That said, it would leave Palm with rather less intellectual capital than it has right now - it would only be able to license its UI, rather than a full OS - but Palm might be willing to put up with that if its UI becomes the standard for future phones from the likes of Sony, Sanyo, Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola, all of whom back Symbian. Sony, of course, also backs Palm. Put all these factors together and there's suddenly a lot of motivation to bring Palm and Symbian together.

Whether that's what DoCoMo has in mind isn't clear at this stage. It's discussions with Palm could centre on rolling out the Palm VII, or building a device that links Palm's OS technology with DoCoMo's iMode.

Either way, it would still be a major boon for Palm. The PDA's company may be strong in the US and Europe, but its share of the Japanese handheld arena is much less impressive, primarily because of very strong competition from established Japanese electronic organiser companies like Casio and Sharp.

Piggy-backing on the huge popularity of iMode - ten million subscribers and counting - would give Palm a major entry into the Japanese PDA market, and one that stresses mobile data applications, increasingly Palm's focus in other territories.

For its part, DoCoMo wants to capitalise upon the success of iMode, using it to launch next-generation W-CDMA based networks, which are rather better for mobile Net access than iMode's infrastructure is. And while iMode may be fine for targeting kids and consumers, it's not so hot for business. Palm, however, is ideally suited to that market. ®

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