Palm distances itself from Windows
May be wooing Nokia
While Microsoft struggles to adapt its Windows and browser platforms for the mobile environment, it is losing ground to Linux even among new friends, notably Palm.
The PDA maker, widely rumored to be the subject of acquisition interest from Nokia, private equity groups and others, is pinning hopes for future revival on the open source operating system - and on going back to its roots, creating an OS and interface that will be differentiators, and closely identified with its devices.
The risk is that the time is past for this approach - even Nokia, which once saw the Symbian OS that it dominates as the key weapon in its war with Microsoft, is now using Linux too, and has shifted the battleground higher up the software stack to the UI and browser.
As Microsoft knows, the benefit and the cost of competing on a closed OS is that there is a huge effort to attract developers and handset makers to support another system - at a time when cellcos like Vodafone are narrowing the number of operating environments they are prepared to support.
In reality, it is likely that Palm will emulate its former stablemate, Palmsource (formerly the software arm of the company, which was spun off and then acquired by Japan's Access and is now focused on adapting features of the Palm UI for a mobile Linux platform). In other words, it will concentrate for its uniqueness on navigation, widgets, and other critical features of the modern mobile UI.
In common with many other innovators in this area, Palm is expected to work closely with Opera on the browser front - the Opera product, which supports Ajax and many other advanced functions also being pioneered by Apple/Nokia and Yahoo! is becoming a major thorn in the side of Internet Explorer as it never was in the PC world.
Palm CEO Ed Corrigan told a recent analyst day that it will release the new Linux-based OS by the end of this year, but it will not be licensed to other handset makers, indicating that the Treo maker does not intend to quit the hardware market and follow other early PDA movers into the licensing game, despite the intensifying competition from the giants like Nokia and Motorola, which are bringing their channels and economies of scale to bear on the traditional Palm/RIM stronghold of enterprise handhelds.
Palm says it has been working on its new OS for several years, and will use its licensing rights to Palmsource/Access' PalmOS (known as Garnet), to evolve its implementation of Garnet into the new system. Among other benefits, this will reduce its licensing fees in future to Access, and protect it from that company's likely reduction of investment in PalmOS as it concentrates on Linux and the upper layers.
It certainly had to make a critical decision about PalmOS - continuing to license from Access was not going to prove fruitful. Access plans to introduce its Linux Platform later this year and it will include an emulation layer for running Palm OS-based applications. However, emulators rarely work as well as native systems, and this approach is unlikely to prolong the life of PalmOS in any meaningful way, though it will be useful as a transition aid for large Palm shops.
Clearly, Access' main direction will be to take the advantages of the Palm user interface for its Linux stack, leaving Palm to fend for itself. By not committing to the Access Linux product, and preferring to create its own, Palm is making a clean break from its former subsidiary and making a last ditch attempt to develop a world class OS again, an ambition that has faded under the Palmsource auspices since spin-off.
"We stopped recommending the Palm OS for enterprise deployments about a year ago; it's fine for consumer apps or lightweight corporate apps, but it's lacking a lot of the features that most corporate users would want," Todd Kort, an analyst at Gartner Group, told US reporters recently, emphasising Palm's dilemma - throw its lot in with a big platform, namely Windows, or create its own OS once more.
Palm will still use Microsoft Windows Mobile in some Treo models, particularly for the large enterprise market, but the defocusing on this OS - the licensing of which was seen as the likely survival route for Palm last year - is radical and risky, and perhaps the clearest signal of all that the PDA pioneer is gearing up for sale to a Microsoft enemy such as Nokia, and so needs to show a Windows-free roadmap.
Only at the start of this year, Palm seemed to be growing closer to Microsoft in order to ensure the survival of its PDA range, when it announced updates to the PalmOS-based Treo 680 and 700p smartphones. These included Microsoft's Direct Push Technology, which supports BlackBerry-style automatic push email from Exchange - lack of automated push has been a key weakness of Treo against the RIM wireless email leader.
Despite such moves, however, PalmOS still represents the bulk of Palm's sales, and it either needed to find a route forward for that platform - preferably one it could control - or accelerate the move to Windows Mobile. Its Linux move represents its choice, but reentering the OS wars and restricting that system to one closed and declining hardware platform is nothing short of reckless, unless Palm is, indeed, about to find a partner with the economies of scale needed for the growing but cut-throat smartphone market.
Copyright © 2007, Faultline 
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