Over the past several days, I’ve had an intensive education on Palm OS Cobalt, the latest version of this operating system.
This includes lectures on its features, discussions with PalmSource personnel and third-party developers, and an opportunity to try it out on a developer board.
As I covered in an earlier article, when you pick up your first device running Cobalt in a few months, you are aren’t going to immediately be able to see very much difference from the current version of the Palm OS. The user interface (UI) for the application launcher essentially remains unchanged.
The same isn’t exactly true for the Address Book and the other PIM apps. PalmSource has added far more fields to this, to make it work better with Microsoft Outlook. All this information is displayed on different windows. Rather than these being listed in a drop-down box in the upper righthand corner, as is typical for the Palm OS, there are a series of tab headings across the top of the page.
Larry Slotnick, PalmSource’s Chief Product Officer, said earlier this week that the company plans to revamp the UI in an upcoming version of Cobalt. I suspect that the new way the new PIM applications look is a clue to what the whole UI will be.
One of the few changes to the UI to make it into Cobalt is a standard way to do the Task Bar. This is a row of icons across the bottom of the screen used to display battery life, time, Bluetooth status, etc. Those who have used the Tungsten T3 or any of Sony’s HVGA models are familiar with this concept.
New Screen Resolutions One of the most anticipated features of Palm OS Cobalt is support for larger resolution screens. Not a lot was said about this by any of the speakers here at the conference so I spoke with a PalmSource employee about it.
Cobalt’s graphics engine supports very large screens but the whole operating system doesn’t come with support for VGA built in. If a licensee wanted to make a Palm with a VGA screen, it could do so with far less work than Sony went through to make the first high-resolution Clie, but it would still have to do some work.
Of course, Cobalt does natively support a variety of smaller screen resolution, including HVGA, and the virtual Graffiti area.
Landscape Support In a revelation I found very disappointing, Cobalt doesn’t have support for switching between landscape and portrait mode built into it. I had been told in the past that this would be a part of the standard API, therefore bringing this important feature to all Cobalt Powered devices.
Licensees will still be able to add this themselves, as palmOne did to the Tungsten T3, but it’s unfortunate that PalmSource didn’t make it a part of the operating system, especially as Microsoft has said this will be a standard feature of Windows Mobile 2004.
One of my predictions for 2004 was that the next version of the Palm OS will be a resource hog, and will be slow and buggy except on very high-end hardware. Looks like I may have to eat those words.
Of course, there are currently no actual handhelds running this version of the operating system, but I was given the opportunity to try out Palm OS Cobalt on a developer board. The one I tested was running an Intel XScale processor at 200 MHz.
There wasn’t anything on the device besides the basic Palm OS applications, so I couldn’t, for example, run a game on it to test it out. But I can say that its general performance was pretty good. Launching the PIM apps was essentially instantaneous, which isn’t surprising as these are now written completely in ARM-native code. Screen redraws were very quick throughout the operating system, comperable to the current Palm OS running on a processor of the same speed.
It doesn’t seem to be buggy. It certainly didn’t crash in the short time I was using it. To get a better perspective, I spoke with several developers who’d had far more time than I with Cobalt, and all of them said they found it to be quite stable.
Multitasking Though the current version of the Palm OS has some limited support for multi-tasking (running two apps simultaneously) Cobalt’s is much more robust. I saw a demonstration of a test device playing a movie, making a phone call, and looking an address up, all at the same time.
PalmSource has added a new type of application called a Slip. This is a small app that runs in the background most of the time and performs some task. The example that was shown off keeps track of stock prices. You click on an icon in the Tack Bar and a small window pops up showing you the latest quotes which it had collected while running in the background.
Multimedia Framework The engineers acquired from Be Inc. certainly had a big hand in Cobalt’s multimedia framework. The specifications are very impressive and I saw some interesting demonstrations.
One demo was of a piece of video that was mapped on the device to the sides of a series of 3D cubes, while the video continued to play, with sound.
PalmSource is really hammering developers to get their current apps ready for Palm OS Cobalt. The developers I spoke with said some tweaking was necessary for most apps that run under the current version of the operating system, but the changes are fairly minor.
Though most developers will have their apps ready for the generic form of Cobalt, the licensees inevitably make some changes when they customize the operating system for their handhelds. Therefore, you can expect a lot of apps will need a small update as soon as devices start shipping.
I’ve already mentioned that PalmSource has revamped personal information management (PIM) apps. This includes revamping the way Cobalt stores the user data and adding much better support for Outlook.
One nifty feature I read about but didn’t see demonstrated was the new HotSync Exchange. This means you can drop a PC file onto the Install Tool and it will be automatically transferred to an application that can make use of it on the handheld during the next synchronization. The documentation says this can be done with images, which doesn’t surprise me, but it also mentions Word and Excel files. I’m not sure how this is going to work, as the standard version of Cobalt doesn’t include a word processor or a spreadsheet application.
Mac Synchronization No surprise, PalmSource’s decision to no longer develop a Macintosh version of its desktop client is proving controversial. I found it somewhat surprising, as I know David Nagel, the company’s CEO, is a Mac user.
Still, this might not be as big a deal as some think. I spoke with a palmOne VP who gave me the impression that palmOne will be at least talking to Mark/Space about bundling The Missing Sync for Mac OS X synchronization with its Cobalt powered handhelds. And Sony Clie users have already had to use The Missing Sync for years.
No big surprise, PalmSource isn’t going to pre-announce any of its licensees Cobalt models at this time. However, David Nagel did say at the press briefing that he expected the first handhelds with the new operating system this summer.
I find this somewhat surprising, as I’ve been expecting the first releases somewhat earlier, during the spring. Of course, its possible Mr. Nagel is being conservative. On the other hand, consumers may have a longer wait than expected.
Upgrades Releasing upgrades for current models isn’t up to PalmSource. Instead, each Palm OS licensee will need to decide if it is willing to take the standard version of Cobalt and customize it for each one of its models.
The standard EFIGSJ version of the operating system, which includes support for six different languages, fits in a 16 MB ROM.