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Be Inc. completes takeover of Palm

NeXT-style coup

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Be Inc. yesterday formally completed its takeover of PalmSource with the appointment of Jean-Louise Gassee to the Palm board. Former Be executives now hold the crucial positions of influence at the troubled PDA company.

Err, now we know what you're thinking. In March, Be Inc. filed for "certification of dissolution" after an auction of most of its remaining physical assets. And didn't Palm Inc. pay $11m for most of the remaining staff and assets last August? And aren't many of the faces on the interminable Palm directors list the same as before?

Yes, yes and yes.

But Palm's undergone a remarkable revolution in the past eight months, and as ever, the leaked press releases don't even begin to tell the full story.

Steve Sakoman, former Be CTO, performs the same function for PalmSource, as "Chief Products Officer." The OS division is now firmly in the hands of former Be Inc staff. Palm acquired almost fifty Be Inc engineers, and the attrition rate has been remarkable: two down. Forty seven to go.

Be's former chief architect George Hoffman, is now Palmsource's chief architect. Cyril Meurillon, Be's former kernel chief, is the PalmOS kernel chief. Pierre Raynaud-Richard, Be's VP of Engineering, is … you can fill in the blank now.

So it would be more accurate to say Be is running the PalmSource division, which has more autonomy thn looked possible when the internal split was announced last year. But it's nice to see some focus back at Palm, and for a paltry few million, the company has bought itself a brilliant and highly-motivated team.

Only six months ago we called them the "stupidest technology company on earth", which we ought to qualify slightly: Palm's OS woes were caused by poor leadership - a lack of management focus and an emphasis on marketing rather than making a next-generation PalmOS a high priority. The previous OS team wasn't short of talent or good ideas.

The new PalmOS team are not the only part of the Be diaspora engaged in developing new operating systems. Over at Danger Inc, a small cluster of former Be staff, including legendary QA hacker 'Baron', have written the small RTOS that runs the HipTop communicator.

Back to Palm. There's a good precedent for this kind of reverse takeover. In 1996, a floundering Apple "bought" NeXT, but within a year Jobs, Rubenstein and Tevanian were steering the ship towards sanity, and it saved the company.

The first fruits of the Be/Palm team's labors, PalmOS 6 [officially it doesn't have a name, but nature abhors vacuums, we learnt at school, so we're giving it one now] should be in your hands by mid-2003. Fashionable opinion suggests this is too late to do anything, against the merciless onslaught of Microsoft and Nokia/friends, but in the fragmented [we're trying to avoid profanity here] American market - anything can happen. ®

* An earlier version of this story had Sakoman as Be Inc.'s CEO. The idea that this could ever have been anyone other than JLG himself is pretty daft.

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