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Palm creator ‘calls’ Symbian boss in OS' defence

Merry Prankster Hawkins plays it for laughs

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PalmSource The creator of the Palm and co-founder of Handspring, Jeff Hawkins, defended the platform's technical deficiencies a knockabout session at PalmSource yesterday.

Hawkins said problems with multitasking, memory management, processing power and communications attributed to PalmOS were exaggerated. He demonstrated a three-way conference call driven by a Visor, and also played an MP3 file concurrently with a video clip encoded in ActiveSky's SKY format.
"Every time one of our partners asks us one of these questions, we find out they've just come from a call from Symbian," said Hawkins, who then showed slides of critical remarks about PalmOS made by Microsoft CE manager Phil Holden, Symbian CEO Colly Myers and a Giga Analyst who'd said he'd told Palm: "We've seen the future - and you're not in it."

"Hey. I've got Colly's number. Why don't we ring him now?" said Hawkins. There followed spoof phone call to the Symbian boss, via a Visor, to a number in nearby Redwood City, Ca. The voice that answered was more Mike Myers than Colly Myers, however, with a newly acquired American accent. And since the real Symbian boss was several thousand miles away at the time, everybody soon twigged that it was bogus.

Almost everyone, that is...

"That was live by the way," Hawkins said, "we did all that using the Visor." Just out of curiosity, when we later tried dialing the number that Hawkins had used to reach "Myers", we got a message from PacBell saying they couldn't complete the call... But on with the show.

"It's true, we are 16-bit," he admitted. "But what's the problem?" The problem might be that since early 1980s, communications protocols have been 32-bit, which you'd be forgiven for thinking gives a 32-bit OS the tiniest, weeniest of advantages. As Register correspondents rightly point out, Motorola's 68000-based Dragonball is 32-bit, but PalmOS isn't. Java too is 32-bit. So Hawkins is half-right here: a 16-bit is a fine choice for a personal organiser, when you want it to talk to the rest of the world, it isn't exactly optimal.

In fact Hawkins' turn - which he performed with great style - was designed to entertain and inspire the audience of faithful Palm developers, rather than provide a rational defence of the PalmOS against its technical critics.

Rather the opposite. "These are not technology products. Our competitors don't understand that message; it's all about user experience," he said. It's a very valid point, and Microsoft and Symbian take heed.

However, Hawkins didn't really give any answers to the questions that he'd so bravely posed, or give indications as to when Palm might fix them. There were excuses aplenty, however. Many of the limitations he said were due to the hardware specifications of the original Pilot. As Hawkins had established the PDA as a popular device in the US - after Apple's Newton had strayed so far from its original goal, and failed to live up to its launch hype - he's earned some slack.

The multitasking answer was typical. "It's based on a multitasking kernel - there's multitasking in there - but we had to make some choice there. So the multitasking is minimal."

So minimal, it would appear, that it has escaped the notice of experienced Palm developers. At the technical session that introduced alerts and notifications in PalmOS 4.0, the first question from the floor was, "Does that mean we get multitasking now?"

He admitted that PalmOS' 64KB limit for application memory chunks was also a problem. "That's down to legacy synchronization code." And the fix? Err...

As for communications, Hawkins said "we've got a nice TCP/IP stack in there - may be it's not terribly well documented". He insisted that the OS limitation of only allowing four open TCP/IP sockets at a time was not a limitation. So in time-honoured Register style, we'll leave the problem of how to juggle adjacent Bluetooth Piconets with an always-on packet data service as an exercise for the reader.

However the more forward looking developers accepted that technological change is inevitable, and wanted the tools to deal with it. Hawkins had allowed ten minutes for questions from the floor. The second questioner asked "I've got a Prism, and it's twice as fast. There are lots of technical advantages for developers for having a more powerful [system], aren't there?" Hawkins said something about the user experience again, and left the room with eight minutes of the promised ten still on the clock. ®

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