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Motorola offers Palm an ARMball lifeline

But will it roll here in time?

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Motorola offered Palm a rope bridge yesterday by announcing new 32-bit ARM-based processors that include elements of the 16-bit Dragonball chips it uses today.

However, the timescales suggested in Santa Clara will not permit Palm to deliver the integrated telephony-capable PDAs it has promised for the end of 2001 on the 'ARMball' platform.

The processors begin sampling in mid-2001, with roll-out slated for the end of next year. Talking to The Register, Ed Valdez, Motorola's director of marketing, said the Dragonball elements include chipsets permitting a colour display and DRAMs. It certainly sounds more ARM than 'ball.

"With that new technology we'll be able to include better scalability and connectivity, such as Bluetooth," he said. Valdez also spoke of extending the Dragonball core, giving Palm an additional lifeline until the new platform arrives.

Palm has been casting around for both a 32-bit hardware platform and a new 32-bit software foundation for over a year now, and been involved in on-off discussions with Symbian for twice as long.

Palm's current 16-bit PalmOS/Motorola 68000 is, shall we say, challenged by the requirement to handle wireless communications in an integrated device. Or as page 183 of the PalmOS Programmer's Companion succinctly puts it: "Only system software can launch a separate task. The multi-tasking API is not available to developer applications."

With future Palms being asked to handle concurrent cellular (GSM) and packet data (GPRS) and probably several Bluetooth sessions too, simultaneously, the company urgently needs an infusion of new technology. However, it can't afford to alienate its loyal developers.

Yesterday Valdez offered these developers some hope. The new platform would be developed with tools that should allow cross compilation of 68000-based Dragonball applications into the 'ARMball' platform.

However, sceptics point out PalmOS baroque and laissez faire memory management techniques may prevent this in practice; emulation appears to be the most easiest route for PalmOS developers to move forward. The 'Big Bang' - tearing up today's PalmOS APIs - appears still to be the most likely scenario (and precisely what's been suggested to us by Palm licensees).

Michael Mace, Palm's chief competitive officer, was talking up emulation last week. "We're going to do a very careful, deliberate phased transition," he said. "It's not going to be an overnight thing."

Indeed not. Palm's roadmap posits the integrated phone/PDA its co-development with Motorola appearing towards the end of next year. However, the platform itself will only be ready, and that doesn't allow for product integration and any testing period with the cellular carriers, let alone any slippage on either the hardware side or to NewPalmOS.

In the meantime, Motorola's has its own fish to fry. Its currently rolling out very own integrated PDA/wireless devices - the V.box messaging pad/GSM phone and its big brother, the Accompli 009: a triband GPRS-capable communicator. Moto's first (inaudible)-based device, the Accompli 003 (or Project Odin) is expected to ship by mid-next year. ®

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