April 13, 2007

Palm plays catch-up with Linux-based OS

Author: Lisa Hoover

In a long-anticipated move, Ed Colligan, president and CEO of Palm, Inc., told investment analysts this week that the company plans to release Linux-based mobile devices by the end of the year. Reaction from the mobile computing community ranged from excitement to caution.

Rumors of a Linux-based operating system for Palm devices have been swirling for years. In 2003, Palm spun off PalmSource as a separate company that was to focus on Palm OS, while Palm, Inc., would focus on the hardware. PalmSource announced in 2004 that it would develop a new version of Palm OS based on Linux. In 2005, PalmSource was purchased by Japanese mobile software maker Access, Inc.

Last December, Palm paid $44 million to Access for perpetual rights to its Garnet operating system source code, formerly known as Palm OS Garnet. Access also offers an Access Linux Platform that includes compatibility with the Garnet operating system to allow most standard Palm applications to run on Linux-based devices with minimal modification.

According to Palm's Web site, the purchase of the Garnet code was designed to "ensure that applications now compatible with Palm OS Garnet will operate with little or no modification in future Palm products that employ Palm OS Garnet as the company evolves it over time to support Palm's product differentiation strategy."

When Colligan shared the company's plans during his keynote speech at the company's recent Investors Day meeting in New York, he told the audience the move was motivated by Palm's desire for "a reduction in complexity and time to market, lower costs, [and] increased reliability and quality."

Though Colligan declined to give details of the new operating system, he did say it will not be licensed to other hardware companies and that it will remain exclusive to Palm. Palm remains curiously tight-lipped about Colligan's recent revelation, telling Linux.com, "Palm isn't doing interviews on the topic."

Palm users cautiously optimistic

Some members of the mobile computing community are elated at the news, particularly those who rely on hacks and workarounds to run Linux on their Palm-based devices, but many remain cautious. According to Sammy McLoughlin, editor in chief of Palm Addict, handheld device users are ready for the flexibility a Linux-based operating system will offer, but say the promise of a new OS is one they have heard before.

"On the whole, the handheld community is positive. However, it's no surprise that there are many individuals who are expressing concern that we have had broken promises previously and it's too little, too late when competition in the handheld community is stiff," McLoughlin says.

"[But] we know that Palm first introduced a great operating system and I think Palm will do it again. They will introduce another first-class OS and, like they have said, it will focus on mobile internet, allowing us to be able to carry the data that we need while taking advantage of multimedia capabilities."

McLoughlin says the compatibility of a new operating system with existing applications is an important issue to both developers and end users. "[P]eople are concerned that their favorite programs are not necessarily going to run on Linux, but I would guess that Palm will ensure compatibility is a priority.

"I think developers also want to know more detail. Palm has given the community a tease, but now everyone wants to know the details. A number of developers that I have spoken to want timescales because they need to ensure that their programs meet the requirements of the new operating system."

Palm plays catch up

Palm is not the first company to offer a Linux operating system for handheld devices. While companies like Sony and Acer have given a nod toward Linux with the mylo and n30, respectively, Sharp has truly embraced Linux with the Zaurus line of handheld devices. Despite repeated attempts to gain market share, however, the devices tend to be poorly received because of their large size, clunky design, and lack of availabililty in the US.

Technology giant Nokia released its second Linux-based device, Nokia N800 Internet Tablet, earlier this year to a warm reception within the open source community. Paul Murdock, head of Nokia's Convergence Product Sales in North America, said Palm's announcement "further validates Linux as an operating system on portable devices."

Norwegian computer software company Trolltech is developing a Linux-based smart phone aimed squarely at open source software developers. Trolltech's Greenphone is the first in a series of devices that company intends to offer as a way to encourage open source software developers to create Linux-based applications for use on mobile computing devices.

Earlier this month, Opera Software agreed to deliver, maintain, and support its popular open source Web browser in future releases of Palm devices in exchange for undisclosed licensing and development fees.

Too little, too late?

Though Palm may have grand plans for the devices it plans to release later this year, some analysts remain nonplussed by the news. Benjamin Gray, infrastructure and operations analyst with Forrester Research, says catching up with the market's other players won't be easy.

"Palm has been struggling to keep its foot in the door of today's mobile enterprises," Gray says. "Treos, although revolutionary a few years ago, haven't seen much innovation of late. Tier one mobile device manufacturers like RIM, Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung have been picking up more and more mindshare with sleek new device offerings, largely based on the Windows Mobile platform -- with the exception of RIM of course."

Gray says the reason Palm chose to finally roll out Linux-based devices after all these years could be based on a desire to make themselves more attractive to potential buyers but, more than likely, it is simply a matter of keeping an eye on the company's bottom line.

"There has been a lot of speculation recently about a potential Palm purchase," he says, "but I think the main driver for open source was clearly economics. With their upcoming mobile operating system based on open source technology, this allows Palm to own their operating system once again."

According to Gray, Palm will need to strengthen its presence in the market quickly if it plans to stay competitive. "I'm hearing from more and more of our enterprise clients that Windows Mobile is the future, for cost reasons primarily. I think Linux will certainly pose a challenge to Windows Mobile, especially now that Palm is a player, but I see Microsoft winning out among enterprise-class devices at least for the next two years."

PalmAddict's McLoughlin is more optimistic. "On the whole everyone seems to be excited," he says. "I think it's a great step in the right direction.... I think we will be hearing a lot more from Palm in the near future."

Click Here!