Palm OS for Linux — It’s a Good Thing

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Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard by now that PalmSource is going to base a future version of the Palm OS on Linux. This is a bit of a gamble, but one that I think is necessary to save the company, and the Palm platform.

It’s sad to say, but PalmSource isn’t up the the job of creating a modern operating system from scratch as quickly as it needs to.

There have been many, many complaints about the fact that no company has released a handheld running Palm OS Cobalt (OS 6), despite the fact that PalmSource finished up work on it almost a year ago. I believe the reason for this is the original version of Cobalt was missing some absolutely vital features. For example, it didn’t support screen rotation or VGA screens, two features that are requirements if the Palm OS is going to compete against Windows Mobile. Any company wanting to release a Cobalt-based device would have had to do a great deal of work in order to make it ready for today’s market.

It wasn’t until September that PalmSource took the wraps off a new version, Cobalt 6.1, which does include these features I just mentioned. This means we probably won’t see any handhelds running Cobalt until next spring, about a year after the debut of the first Pocket PCs with VGA displays and support for screen rotation.

PalmSource just isn’t keeping up with the competition, and I think its executives know that. Handhelds and smartphones based on outdated operating systems aren’t successful, and if something doesn’t change, the Palm OS licensees will eventually be forced to jump ship. If PalmSource is going to be around in another few years, it needs to try something completely different. And that’s exactly what it is going to do.

A New Hope

Put simply, PalmSource is going to put the Palm OS look-and-feel on top of a Linux kernel. This will mean that its developers will no longer have to be responsible for developing an entire operating system, just the parts that users see.

With a big part of their current workload removed, PalmSource developers will have a lot more time to make the improvements necessary to keep the Palm platform competitive.

In theory, all these changes under the hood are going to come without major drawbacks. The standard Palm OS applications, like the Address Book and the Memo Pad, will be a part of the new version of the Palm OS, too.

Most importantly, PalmSource is promising that older applications will still run on the Linux-based version of the operating system.

I’m sure there will be some tweaking required, and developers of third-party software have my sympathies, but I doubt users in general will be inconvenienced much. They’ll simply have to do the same thing they do every time a new version of the operating system is released or a new handheld hits the market: wait for developers to release updated versions of their software that is compatible with the new stuff.

In addition, companies who are investing in Linux will find it easy to develop applications that will run on Palm OS devices.

A Question of Timing

The single biggest criticism I’ve heard about this move is that it’s coming too late.

I think that those who are saying this have, subconsciously or not, the belief that Linux is some kind of fad that’s going to blow over in a few years. There are plenty of companies and even whole countries that are unhappy with Microsoft and are looking to Linux as the best alternative. It’s these groups that PalmSource is hoping its next operating system will appeal to, and they are definitely going to still be around in a couple of years.

But PalmSource doesn’t have time to dawdle. Fortunately, by acquiring China MobileSoft Limited (CMS), PalmSource is also acquiring a version of Linux ready to run on a mobile device, so it isn’t like work is just starting this project.

Also, PalmSource has acquired all of CMS’s developers, who have been creating software for mobile devices for years. So I have high hopes that Palm OS for Linux will move along much faster than Palm OS Cobalt did.

Even better, Linux is an open-source operating system, so there are people all over the world making improvements to it even as you read this. PalmSource will be able to incorporate these, free of charge, into later versions of Palm OS for Linux.

Still, the work on putting the Palm OS user interface on top of CMS’s mobile Linux kernel is just starting, and the same goes for the job of making current Palm OS apps run on it. These aren’t going to be trivial tasks, but ones that are much easier than creating Palm OS Cobalt was.

And that’s really the whole justification for this project. By switching to basing its platform on Linux, PalmSource expects future development of the Palm OS to be much easier and faster, allowing it to better compete in a tough global market.

There’s no doubt this new strategy is a bit risky; any major change has some risks. But when what you are doing isn’t working, not making a change is the worst thing you can do.

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