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Ex-Apple brains to lead Palm software revival

Nagel CEO, Sakoman CTO

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Palm has turned to two former Apple luminaries to revive its software fortunes. Board member Dave Nagel has been talked into heading up the new PalmOS business as its CEO, and Steve Sakoman fills the CTO seat vacant since Bill Maggs departure earlier this year.

Both figure prominently in Apple's history, although their Cupertino stints barely overlapped. Sakoman has spent ten years at Be Inc., which was effectively acquired by Palm this month, and which he co founded, but prior to that he started and lead the Newton project.

Nagel left Apple in 1996, where he was in charge of software. Characterised in Jim Carlton's history of Apple's blunders as an "exceedingly nice guy and a brilliant intellectual," but "lacking the sense of urgency to get products shipped out quickly", Nagel is
shouldered with the blame for the Copland OS death march. Perhaps unfairly, as Apple had plenty of technical options for rescuing the project, but failed to get a clear strategy from successive CEOs who were more preoccupied with trying to sell the company.

And intriguingly, Nagel himself led long negotiations which almost delivered Apple to IBM in 1994. This may or may not have relevance to his new job. We'll see. Palm yesterday said that Nagel would report to a newly formed Board responsible for Palm Software.

Loyal Palm users who've grown weary of the company taking refuge in fuzzy marketing over hard-headed technology decisions ought to be cheered by the appointment of Sakoman as CTO.

According to legend, Sakoman began to build the first Be hardware the day after Jean Louise Gassee left Apple - October 1 1990 - after the pair paid a visit to Fry's Electronics store. (That work resulted in a prototype with five AT&T Hobbit CPUs, and later morphed into the short-lived dual PPC processor BeBox). More recently as VP of Engineering he led the BeIA initiative and was instrumental in signing Sony as a licensee to put Be's technology in its eVilla internet appliance.

More pertinently for Palm, Sakoman's background in handheld computers is impeccable. Prior to the Newton, he worked on a portable MS DOS machine for HP. He can't be lumped with the blame for the Newton project, which spun rapidly out of control after his departure from Apple and which - by the time it was launched three years later - was an unwieldy device lacking the simplicity of the original vision.

But can a guy who's led the engineering for a company that lost money for ten years be Palm's saviour? Well, the history of Be may be viewed as a great Quixotic disaster, but we'd beg to differ.

The fact that the company survived for ten years - and through such dramatic shifts: taking it from being an independent workstation manufacturer, to an alternative Macintosh software platform, through to being an alternative x86 OS, and finally to being an embedded media appliance platform - without a discernable revenue stream is a testament to its engineering prowess, practicality and foresight.

Never in this period was Be fashionable enough to be showered with bubble-economy quantities of capital, so it made do with the resources it had. For example, in its pomp Be Inc had only a sixth of the engineers of the Apple Copland project, and still managed to turn out a working operating system... and quite a good one, at that. Although Be was forever improvising, but the result was of impeccable taste - and that's a good omen for Palm. Sakoman looks sure to bring as much focus as ingenuity to the task, and Palm needs both. ®

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