Back to the Future with Palm

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Think back to 2003. Palm, Inc. was in charge of development of the latest version of the Palm OS, working to make Garnet more competitive with Microsoft’s Pocket PC.

Then three years passed by, during which a lot of events took place. Spin-offs, buy-outs, roll-outs, name changes, just about everything you can imagine.

So, three years later, we have Palm, Inc. in charge of development of the latest version of the Palm OS, working to make Garnet more competitive with Microsoft’s Pocket PC.

All I can do is shake my head. With today’s announcement that Palm has purchased a perpetual license to Garnet and is going to re-start development on it, the company is for all intents and purposes saying that spinning PalmSource off as a separate company was a mistake.

In the years since its spin off from Palm, PalmSource spent large amounts of time and money creating Palm OS Cobalt, which will never appear on a single shipping device. After being acquired last year by Access Co., Ltd. and abandoning Cobalt, the former PalmSource is now working hard on a Linux-based operating system called ALP, which Palm has so far shown no interest in adopting.

So that’s how Palm is going to start 2007 at essentially the same point it started 2003, trying to make Garnet do more than it was ever meant to.

Moving Forward

As big a debacle as progress on the Palm OS has been for the last few years, I don’t think the situation is hopeless.

Palm has made it pretty clear that it doesn’t intend to keep on endlessly shipping handhelds and smartphones with the same exact operating system they have now. Instead, it is going to take Garnet as a starting point and move forward with it.

Unfortunately for people like us, Palm isn’t saying what direction it is going to take the Palm OS, and there are plenty of options.

Option 1 is the most pessimistic. Despite what it is implying in today’s announcement, Palm could keep milking Garnet for as long as possible with minimal modifications. This assumes that people don’t really care about the operating system, they just want the applications that come on the device to meet their needs, and Palm has been steadily improved these over the years.

Option 2 is to take Garnet and add the features it needs to keep it competitive against Windows Mobile, Symbian, and BlackBerry. The most obvious need is real, robust multitasking, but its networking software could use a serious overhaul, as well.

Option 3 is much more radical. If I’m reading Palm’s licensing agreement with Access correctly, it has the right to develop a Palm OS Garnet emulator for other mobile operating systems. Palm is already making Windows Mobile smartphones, and these would sell even better if they came with the ability to easily run virtually all current Palm OS applications.

Option 4 is a combination of the previous two. Palm could develop its own operating system — possibly based on Linux — and include the ability to run current Palm OS applications. As Palm owns all the rights to the "Palm" brand, it could even call this new operating system the Palm OS.

Whatever Palm does, it needs to do it quickly. Sales of smartphones and cellular-wireless handhelds are exploding, and Palm isn’t going to be able to successfully compete for very long in a cut-throat market with devices based on an operating system that first came out in 2002.

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