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Handspring toys with Palm alternatives

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Handspring has made its strongest declaration of independence yet, vowing to use non-Palm software in future products. Handspring founder Jeff Hawkins, creator of the original Palm, has been asked outright about his OS plans, and although his answers are couched in the language of the diplomacy, it's clear that he's leaving his options open.

Asked outright by Business 2.0 if Handspring might use another operating system, Hawkins replied: "I have to give you a very standard answer on this because it's a very sensitive question. The standard answer [our emphasis] is that we're very happy with Palm - and I mean that."

"All the products we want to build today, we can build with Palm OS," he adds.

But Hawkins points out that planning for always-on, integrated voice/data products involves a two year planning phase: "The products I'm thinking about now, daily, are not going to show up until a year from now, maybe two years."

Now Handspring's licence for PalmOS expires in 2003, so we can assume that decisions for Handspring's 2003 product line are being made right now.

"If Handspring grows as large as I think it will," predicts Hawkins, "then it's almost certain that we will have products that won't run Palm OS."

Clearly, if Palm can't produce the goods and deliver the modern, multitasking OS that's required for always-on integrated devices - it's embarked on a major ground-up rewrite of PalmOS for version 5.0 - then Handspring would need to look elsewhere. We suspect Hawkins hopes Palm can pull it off, as it makes the task of migrating his users much easier. But he knows his responsibility is to Handspring's shareholder, not Palm's, and he clearly wants Handspring to be around for a very long time. So sentiment doesn't really come into it.

But it can also be seen as jockeying for the renewal of the PalmOS license. As you'll recall from the Apple's cloning adventure in the mid-1990s. Apple belatedly decided to license MacOS to cloners, only to see these cloners build faster, cheaper and more fully featured machines, devouring Apple's market share.

That's what's happened with Palm to some extent: Handspring has a faster Prism model than Palm, supports USB, and even the global GSM cellular standard these days too, via a Springboard module. So long as the Palm market as a whole is growing, Palm doesn't mind too much. But it's sure to want to maximise its own return by demanding a higher royalty than one Handspring pays now: which was negotiated when there was no Palm clone market.

Expect those Symbian rumours really begin to hum. ®

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Business 2.0 Jeff Hawkins Interview

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