Hardware makers get their hands on Palm OS 5

PalmSource Inc., the Palm Inc. spin-off that heads development of the popular handheld operating system, said Monday it has shipped Palm OS version 5 to developers and licensees, leading the way for new devices running the software to be released as early as September.

The new version of the Palm OS was previewed at the PalmSource Conference & Expo in February. At the time, the software maker expected to have the operating system ready to ship to licensees in late June or July.

"We've beat that date," said Steve Sakoman, chief product officer at PalmSource, who gave reporters a sneak peek at the operating system last week.

Licensees including Sony Corp., Handspring Inc. and Palm Inc. make handheld computers and combination phone-PDA (personal digital assistant) devices based on the Palm OS.

New to the operating system is support for processors based on the ARM (Advanced RISC Machines) chip architecture, the Santa Clara, California, company said. It is the first time that the Palm OS will be able to run in handheld devices that don't use chips from Motorola Inc.'s DragonBall family.

PalmSource has promised that applications will run anywhere from two to 20 times faster with the new chip architecture.

"ARM is certainly the chip everybody in the handheld space is moving toward," said Todd Kort, principal analyst with research company Gartner Inc. "It's been extremely important that Palm moves off the ancient DragonBall architecture."

Handheld devices from Palm and Handspring today use DragonBall chips at 33 MHz, Kort said. Sony has been the only Palm OS licensee to veer from that trend, using a 66 MHz version of the DragonBall for some of its newer devices.

The ARM-based chips can run at speeds from 75 MHz to 600 MHz, dramatically increasing the performance of Palm OS devices, according to Sakoman.

"The market is moving beyond the low end, and it wants color devices, it wants to be able to play music here and there, it wants something that's a little bit more capable," Kort said. "Palm had to move to a new chip architecture with more horsepower to provide that extra power for people who need it."

Early devices based on Palm OS 5 are expected to ship with an OMAP (Open Multimedia Applications Platform) chip from Texas Instruments Inc., which is based on the ARM architecture. Although no device makers have officially announced plans to use ARM processors from other vendors, Palm OS 5 does support Intel Corp.'s XScale chips and Motorola's DragonBall MX1 processors.

The operating system has also been lauded by analysts for being able to run applications developed for earlier versions of Palm OS. About 80 percent of the applications currently available for Palm OS version 4.1 will run on the upgrade; however, they will work in "emulation mode," Sakoman said. Some application developers are expected to tweak some of the existing applications to run better on new Palm devices that use ARM chips and the new operating system, Sakoman said.

"Some backward-compatible applications can identify the chip and the operating system and optimize for the newer devices," he said.

Applications designed specifically for Palm OS 5 aren't expected to ship for another year, Kort said.

Palm OS 5 also has redesigned icons, and the text display is "easier on the eyes," Sakoman said. Users will be able to change the combination of colors that appear on screen. The operating system also has higher-quality audio playback and built-in support for a sharper screen resolution of 320 pixels by 320 pixels, more than double the resolution on most current Palm devices.

New security features in Palm OS 5 include support for SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocol, which is used to secure e-mail, Web browsing and online transactions. Support for the IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN also will be built in.

"Whether we will see support for that (802.11b) in hardware devices, I'm not sure," Kort said.

During the first quarter of 2002, Palm-powered handhelds accounted for about 55 percent of the world's PDA shipments, according to research from Gartner Inc.'s Dataquest division. Trailing with about 22.5 percent of the market -- and gaining -- are devices based on versions of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system, according to Dataquest.

"I think Microsoft will continue to gain momentum in the enterprise space," Kort said. "Palm is sort of in a maintenance mode, they're trying to hold on to what market share they've already got. OS 5 is going to help."

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Matt Berger

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