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PalmSource's sideways shuffle to Linux

Cobalt, we hardly knew ye

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3GSM Wave goodbye PalmSource the PalmOS company, say hello to Palm the Chinese Linux company. That judgment may be a little premature, but there's no doubting where the company sees the future.

PalmSource's takeover of China MobileSoft makes it a significant player in the Chinese market, trebling the number of offerings it can take to phone vendors. It's acquired an embedded OS, and a set of applications which are licensed to ten ODMs already. But most significantly it's pledged to base future PalmOS development on the Linux kernel - a decision that Palm considered, before rejecting, early in 2001, as we exclusively revealed here.

So, we asked Albert Chu, VP of Business Development at PalmSource, what makes Linux makes sense now when it didn't make sense four years ago?

"Heh. Sometimes it takes time for ideas to mature," he said, diplomatically. Actually it's not fair to pin that chaotic era of Palm's history on Albert, as he only joined two years ago from AT&T. And chaotic it was. Palm had once vowed to base development on Symbian's kernel but let the agreement grow cold. And as it mulled Linux first time round, the company had barely waved goodbye to CTO Bill 'Mad' Maggs, who once vowed to your reporter that Palm didn't need an OS with a memory management unit.

Bonkers.

Since then we've had Motorola embrace Linux in a kind of "well, we've tried everything else" unification move.

Naturally Chu doesn't quite see it like that. In fact PalmSource's twist is that it'll allow ODMs to use another Linux kernel - say MonteVista's, or Motorola's - in place of its own. It simply wants to keep those APIs, and therefore its developer community, alive on a low cost platform favored by Asian manufacturers.

Cobalt Blues

However, the omens aren't good for Cobalt, the ground-up rewrite of PalmOS which offers sophisticated multimedia features and multi-tasking. Palm acquired the team who wrote BeOS in August 2001, and the OS crept out to manufacturers just over a year ago. We're still waiting for the first Cobalt phone. Cobalt itself will continue insists Chu, although as a flavor of Linux.

"Linux will be the underlying kernel," he said. "We'll strip the pieces above the kernel and put Cobalt pieces there. It will no longer be the Cobalt kernel".

So why even go to Cobalt, now that it has the whiff of death about it - and no shipping products?

"Manufacturers can go to Cobalt now and 12 to 18 months out, maybe they can go to Linux."

It doesn't sound like the most compelling sales pitch we've ever heard.

But Cobalt products are in the pipeline, it's just taken far longer to integrate than anyone expected, said Chu. Even PalmOne struggled to get the Treo 650 to market in time for Christmas, and that's based on the old PalmOS, Garnet. The troubled 650 won't ship in Europe until Q2, we now hear.

So PalmSource is in the business of selling, and protecting, the old PalmOS APIs. Chu said that it will protect its IP to prevent a GNUStep or a WINE emulator taking root - "we're in the intellectual property business too" he said - and added, "if we do our job correctly people will see value in upgrades. I think they'd rather be up to date, rather than a step behind."

And there you have it. The brave, bold Cobalt venture probably began too late, and Palm's long years of dithering when it insisted everything was for the best and now catching up with it.

A year ago we speculated in the smart phone wars, it looked rather like the OS vendors - Microsoft and Symbian - had all lost. Since then Symbian has been buoyed by new investment and Microsoft continues to pound away. Only PalmSource, it seems, has been forced to accept the new Asian phone economics. Hollow yourselves out, before someone else does. ®

Related Stories

Palm mulled Linux for next-gen OS
Palm CTO rubbishes 3000 man years of Symbian OS work
Mad Maggs to quit Palm
PalmSource to build Palm OS on Linux

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