Is PalmSource Doomed?

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Please forgive me for the melodramatic title of this editorial, but I am genuinely concerned about both PalmSource and the Palm OS.

The good news is the future of this company (and its operating system) is almost completely in its own hands.

Unfortunately, the bad news is exactly the same: PalmSource’s future is almost completely in its own hands.

To explain my nervousness, I need to make a run through the history books.

Cobalt? What’s That?

In case there are a few newbies reading this, there was a time when the Palm OS absolutely dominated the handheld market. Heck, at one point Palm, Inc. had a higher market capitalization than General Motors. For a brief period, some people thought the Palm OS would be as successful as Microsoft Windows.

Then reality intervened.

Thanks to a number of missteps, Palm, Inc. and later PalmSource allowed the Palm OS to languish virtually unchanged for many years. In the mean time, its competitors, like Windows Mobile and Nokia’s S60, have been able to catch up or even surpass the Palm OS in some areas.

Things really went wrong a couple of years ago. Palm, Inc. spun PalmSource off as a separate company, and the first thing it did was come out with Palm OS Cobalt. This was a new version of its operating system for handhelds and smartphones that — despite all the Palm OS’s prior success — didn’t appeal to a single one of the companies that might have used it, the most obvious example being Palm, Inc. itself.

More recently, PalmSource was bought by Access Co., Ltd. and announced that the next version of its signature mobile operating system would be based on Linux. Although this generated a certain amount of enthusiasm in some quarters, a great deal of nervousness remains.

Much of this uneasiness has been generated by Palm, Inc.’s apparent lack of interest in the next version of the Palm OS. While this company has frequently expressed strong support for the Palm OS, it has essentially been silent on whether it will make the jump from Palm OS Garnet — which it has been using for years — to the upcoming Linux-based version.

The Best Case Scenario

If PalmSource hopes to still be a major player in the world handheld and smartphone market in another couple of years, it absolutely must convince Palm, Inc. that, despite all its past mistakes, it really can create a mobile operating system that meets the needs of 21st century users.

That means this operating system needs to offer world-class usability without sacrificing functionality or backwards compatibility. This isn’t an impossible goal, as the Palm OS is already most of the way there. It has a user interface that is admired around the world, but this platform must catch up with its rivals in functionality.

If PalmSource can get Palm, Inc. on board then other companies will certainly get on the bandwagon. Doing this is the only way PalmSource will continue to be a significant player in the future.

The Worst Case Scenario

Again, I apologize for being overly melodramatic in the title of this editorial because I don’t think that, even in the worst case scenario, that PalmSource is actually doomed.

The worst possible thing that I believe will happen to this company is that it will be relegated to creating Linux-based operating systems for smartphones in Asia.

As this will likely be a very profitable business in the coming decades this will hardly be a poke in the eye, but it will still be a sad thing for all those people in the West who have been fans of the Palm OS for the last decade or so.

And, even if this worst-case scenario comes to pass, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the Palm OS. There have been rumors for many months that Palm, Inc. is developing its own Linux-based version of this operating system, completely independent of PalmSource.

While this remains only a rumor, it is still a comfort to those who are worried about the eventual fate of the Palm OS.

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