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Palm unveils new OS, but defers big-bang to 2003

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Palm finally has a modern, 32bit operating system to boast about, but has staggered the roadmap so that most of the gain - and most of the pain for developers - is deferred until the next major release.

"The next OS release will be even bigger - a lot bigger in terms of new APIs," said PalmSource's David Fetter. PalmSource is the new name for the software side of Palm, Inc.

What Palm has done with the ARM-native release 5.0 to write a new binary compatible - well, kinda - OS that gives an immediate speed boost to 68000 Palm applications, which run in an emulator. The OS ships to licensees in late summer or early autumn, so it's possible that speed-bumped Palms will be on the market in time for Christmas.

There are two downsides to the roadmap, as it stands:-

Firstly, although the new OS is fully multi-threaded and supports protected memory and other goodies, the new APIs that will allow developers to take advantage of these features aren't here. Palm OS version 5.0 maintains API compatibility with 4.1, with a couple of new APIs are added for security.

Secondly, existing Palm applications won't be quite fully compatible with version 5.0. CTO Steve Sakoman told us that around 80 per cent of applications should be able to function unmodified, although changes will be required in regard to UI objects and low-level hardware calls.

And this isn't surprising: the anarchy of existing Palm development lets hackers freedom to the innards, such as unrestricted access to the global heap. The choice between maintaining one hundred per cent binary compatibility was too costly, said Fetter:-

"The OS needs to move forward," said David Fetter. "We could have done an incremental amount of gross stuff to make the most vile and evil hacks work forever. But that would have meant we'd have to put a lot more into the OS, and it would need a lot more memory."

Fetter said Palm had identified, and put in traps and error codes for the hundred most likely transgressions. A hundred? Indeed.

For the next version, which promises to be the really big deal, Palm will introduce APIs to deal with the big endian to little endian transition, APIs for threads and an new process architecture, a new comms architecture, and a whole new toolchain. So that's the big bang, and represents a change as big as the one from DOS to Windows.

So when can Palmesans get their dibs on these?

"We haven't announced when," Sakoman told The Register. "The new APIs are things we'll be rolling out over the next two years."

"We've got some parallel OS development going on," confirmed Fetter.

Fetter compared the migration favorably to Apple's own move from Motorola 68000 processors to PowerPC in 1994. Although Apple engaged in a straightforward port of the MacOS to PowerPC, which Fetter acknowledged made for "an easier transition", the OS didn't immediately make the performance leap it should have. "Apple didn't have everything running at full speed right away," he said. In fact even with 9.1, released in 2000, did some portions of MacOS go native PowerPC. And portions remain 68000.

You could argue that Palm isn't really running at full speed right away either - as the API remains compatible with 4.1, although developers can kick down and write ARM instructions.

(Ironically it was Apple who, with VLSI and Olivetti, was the prime mover in creating ARM in the first place, as it needed a RISC chip for its Newton and plumped for Acorn's CPU.)

Sakoman wouldn't say when the new APIs would be disclosed. Or what the name or number of this next major revision will be. Some wag will call it 'Copland', but we won't even go there.

Palm showed the OS running on Intel Xcale, Texas Instruments OMAP, Motorola and Cyrus hardware, which we'll cover RSN. ®

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