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Maggs departure revives Palm-Symbian prospects

Palm window-shopping again?

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Could the Palm/Symbian dream ticket be on? Giga analyst and VP Rob Enderle stoked rumours today that Palm is again shopping for a new operating system, the very day after the company announced that its CTO Bill Maggs was leaving the company. Maggs had emerged as Palm's most prominent opponent of a technology alliance with Symbian.

Fifteen months ago Palm and Symbian announced talks about talks, if not a formal partnership, which involved putting the Palm user interface onto Symbian's kernel and networking stacks. Attendees at 1999's PalmSource Conference in Santa Clara were told that joint APIs could be expected in mid-2000.

It seemed like a marriage made in heaven, and as The Register observed at the time, looked like "the sort of news that will ruin Bill Gates' Christmas."

Palm has enviable branding in the United States, and a makes life trivially simple for a loyal developer community. While Symbian - a joint venture largely owned by the mobile handset vendors - has an equally enviable technology lead, an intimate knowledge of the wireless business and doesn't manufacture rival devices (although of course, all its shareholders do...)

And we waited... and waited. Although a Palm-on-Symbian device is in the works, and should appear in the form of a Nokia smartphone for the US market, the broader partnership appeared to have stalled. With the blessing, it appears, of the outgoing Palm CTO. Although Maggs had been in the post less than a year, but he appeared to set his stall out in spectacular fashion against Symbian, and revved Palm into go-it-alone mode. Analysts have been told to expect a fully rewritten, potentially incompatible 32bit PalmOS 5.

Creating a real-time wireless platform from scratch is a multi-billion dollar exercise these days, and with the Symbian members having done most of the donkey work on GPRS and Bluetooth already, so a partnership would leave Palm to concentrate on what it's best at: marketing friendly gadgets. Although PalmOS can do rudimentary telephony - as Handspring's GSM clip-on demonstrates - it doesn't do it that well, and of course can't do much else at the same time. And as the trickle of all-in-one rivals from Panasonic, Nokia, Ericsson, Sanyo and Motorola turns into a flood later this year, such Heath Robinson kludges look increasingly threadbare.

Despite Jeff Hawkins' bluster at the most recent PalmSource, Hawkins remains in touch with Symbian, we gather, although in public he's still PalmOS biggest supporter.

Symbian officially gave us their "we'll talk to anyone and everybody" response today, and wouldn't comment on recent meetings between the Handspring chief and Symbian. However with Maggs' departure, an obstacle to renewed collaboration has been removed. Palm needs to convince its investors and staff that its recent not-invented-here mode isn't in their long-term interest. But heck, that's good enough for Apple these days, it must be good enough for Palm?

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