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Hard cases for hardcases: Palm debuts Bluetooth kits

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PalmSource With only five 16-bit fishes, and two not-quite-multitasking loaves of bread, Palm fed its multitude of developers some Bluetooth technology yesterday.

At the PalmSource Developer Conference in Santa Clara, Palm became the first OS vendor to distribute Bluetooth developer kits to a wide community base. Making a grab for a leadership in the Bluetooth business is quite an achievement for Palm, and the company announced it with typical chutzpah. Developers left the key Bluetooth technical session enthused with a challenge from Palm's Bluetooth technical lead to "go create some apps by Friday".

The session was actually pretty downbeat. Palm said it had missed its target of getting Bluetooth into Palm OS 4.0, and that support was still very rudimentary.

"It's a big pity that it will not be released at the same time as OS4.0," said our host Peter Easton from Palm technical developer support. Sometime after the release of OS 4.0 - and we can only speculate, since Palm has enforced a three-line whip on any speculation when that might actually be - there will be a "Bluetooth aware" update to PalmOS. Bluetooth support would eventually be incorporated into the OS in the 2002/2003 timeframe.

But Bluetooth modules are expensive now. The consortium declared a $10 goal for manufacturers when it launched, and with the most optimistic price predictions set for $30-50 for the coming months, critical volumes haven't yet been reached.

So what Palm envisages is a separate "hard case" that attaches to existing Palm devices through the serial port, and superficially resembles the gatefold leather cases you can buy now. The case has its own discrete processor, an RF module and serial chipset, and draws its power from the Palm. A flat plate on the back of the hard case (we expect they'll want to modify the terminology for the UK market) acts as the antenna.

So expect to see Bluetooth as a basic cable replacement for Palms shipping to OEMs possibly by the end of 2001, and appearing in products in early 2002. Judged purely a PDA-to-PC cable, this won't cause Palm to break much sweat, as Microsoft won't be supporting Bluetooth at the OS level until Whistler. That's officially slated for next autumn.

But the news will doubtless cause much rejoicing over at Symbian, which shipped the same functionality to the cellphone giants in ER6 last October, and expects to sign off on ER6.1 next spring. That includes much more advanced support for concurrent sessions, and is integrated into the OS, and by implication integrated into the phones too. Given the lag between Symbian shipping a platform to manufacturers, and Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and friends baking it into something you can actually buy, that ought to appear in one-box, Symbian-flavoured smartphones at the tail end of next year. ®

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