PalmSource looks beyond the phone to tablets, players and tools

Memory extender

PalmSource is looking to pitch its new OS at some pretty radical new device categories beyond the traditional PDA and the smartphone, while positioning its phone wares as the choice of the independent OEM anxious to stay beyond the clutches of Nokia and Microsoft.

Thanks to Nokia's formal takeover of Symbian this week, PalmSource has been able to turn the tables on its fomer nemesis: Nokia will now have to negotiate all the complexities that the old Palm suffered for so long in competing with its partners. Such tensions led to Psion spinning off Symbian, and dogged Palm until last year when it eventually split into hardware and software companies.

PalmSource's Michael Mace told us that the company sees Cobalt, the ground-up rewrite of Palm OS, in some pretty interesting devices. It's pitching the software as suitable for a "memory extender", or an archive access console: a handheld that's optimized for searching between public and private databases. Such a device will cache as much data as necessary locally, but will provide indexes and fast access to WAN and Internet resources.

This, Mace acknowledges, will require technology which is not quite ready for the first Cobalt release; but it's a sign that PalmSource has a vision beyond the traditional and shrinking personal organizer business. He also sees Cobalt powering smaller, cheaper tablets, mini-notebooks, and entertainment consoles. Another huge potential market is media playback devices.

Of course PalmSource isn't alone in this. Apple will be looking to add features to its iPod music player, Microsoft has demonstrated reference designs for a 'Portable Media Center', and Nokia has a campaign blizzard of 'media phones' lined up, with the 7700 phone first out of the door. All could be winners in the years ahead as new compensation models for entertainment industry are introduced (see here and here).

Fork? What Fork!

As for its phone OEM appeal, Cobalt should not break the budget. The new OS requires 16MB of RAM and 16MB of ROM and a 200MHz ARM 9 processor with a memory management unit. The old Palm OS 5, rebranded Garnet, will chug along in 8MB/8MB and a 70MHz ARM 7 processor.

According to Mace, the decision to continue the two OSes does not represent a break with tradition: Palm shipped Palm OS 3,4 and 5 devices concurrently, he noted. PalmSource has managed to do a fine job with backward compatibility, and although Cobalt breaks backward-compatibility, it does so by adding new toolkit APIs in areas that offer a real advantage for developers and users.

PalmSource has certainly laid the groundwork for a much more attractive developer roadmap. It has licensed a JVM from IBM, and is betting on the Eclipse IDE framework. Borland and Metrowerks continue to be platform stalwarts, and Mace emphasized how important AppForge is to the company, with its compatibility with .NET.

But for a change, PalmSource has an attractive political pitch against its competitors. OEMs have the option of being under the thumb of Microsoft, or under the thumb of Nokia, says Mace. Large carriers have been notoriously feisty of late, with Vodafone the feistiest of the bunch. By choosing lower-tier OEM Sharp for its Live! service, the carrier indicated it wants control of the brand. PalmSource will continue with its Palm Powered™ logo but, says Mace, "we're not religious about it".

Mace says a low-key rollout was appropriate for a piece of technology that doesn't have any relevance for end users. "For software developers there's a lot of evangelizers, but why hype something that isn't on the shelves? When we're ready, we'll be happy to turn up the volume," he said. ®

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