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PalmSource, the developer of the Palm OS, has come close to announcing when it will ship the final code for version five of the software to developers and manufacturers - "early summer," which the company says means within weeks rather than months.

This is the first version of the handheld operating system to ship from the newly split-off software development division of Palm Inc., and as such the first devices to use it will not necessarily come from the Palm stable.

This operating system sees a move away from the DragonBall processors traditionally used by Palm, moving onto the ARM processor currently used by most Pocket PC devices. The aim is to spread the use of the Palm OS across a range of different devices.

PalmSource's chief competitive officer, Michael Mace, says that "the biggest benefit of (the move to ARM) is the range of hardware devices that can run the Palm OS".

"It can be used in a lot of different products from low-power, low-cost to high-power, high-cost devices," Mace said.

He expects that we won't only see the Palm OS running on handhelds but also on smart phones, enhanced multimedia devices for games and music and network management products. He also said there will be new screen sizes and form factors entering the market.

ARM-based devices are speedier than those using DragonBall processors, so the shift should mean faster performance from the Palm OS.

But the company has also worked in improved multimedia and wireless networking support, a built-in sound manager and support for high-resolution screens.

Though there are clear advantages to opting for ARM, PalmSource has ensured that most existing Palm software and data will still work under Palm OS 5.0 by including an emulator that will let users and developers to run software based on the old processor architecture.

As the code has not yet shipped to manufacturers none were prepared to comment on when we might see new hardware devices running Palm OS 5.0, but PalmSource anticipates the first ones could reach the market as soon as autumn this year.

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Ursula Seymour

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