Preview of Palm OS Cobalt

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The big news for this year’s PalmSource Developer’s Conference is expected to be the release of all the details of the next version of the Palm OS.

Until recently, it was though this would be called Palm 6. However, PalmSource’s CEO David Nagel said last week that his company is moving away from numbering its operating systems. Through an accident leak, the new name has been revealed to be Palm OS Cobalt.

This version of the operating system was given to licensees at the very end of last year. The first models running it are expected to be released in the next few months.

There will be another version of the Palm OS coming later this year. This will be a special version of Palm OS 5 intended for low-cost smart phones. It will also get a new name, though this is not yet known.

Overview of Palm OS Cobalt

Though all the details won’t be available until later today, PalmSource has given a fairly complete description of this operating system over the past year or so.

One of the major changes in Palm OS Cobalt is that developers will be able to create ARM-native applications. As it is now, Palm OS applications are still being written, in effect, to run on 68K processors, such as the Motorola Dragonball chips used on handhelds running Palm OS 4.1 and below. On Palm OS 5 devices, which use an ARM-based processor, apps must run through an emulator that enables them to operate on non-68K processors, albeit slower.

Palm OS 5 brought partial support for ARM-native code; Developers could put ARMlets in their apps to speed them up. ARMlets are small snippets of ARM-native code to handle processor-intensive tasks. With Cobalt, developers will be able to create apps that don’t require emulation.

Of course, this will cause problems with backwards compatibility, so developers will still be able to create apps that will run under Palm OS Cobalt, OS 5, OS 4, et cetera, but won’t have all of the advantages of ARM-native code. And Palm OS Cobalt will be able to run legacy apps written for the older versions of the operating system, as long as these apps follow Palm’s rules for “well behaved” software.

In addition, Cobalt will come with an API to allow both portrait and landscape modes. Though some devices running the current version of the operating system already offer this, this will be the first time this capability will be built into the operating system, making it easy for all Palm OS models to do so.

Cobalt will offer support for VGA screens. Actually, Palm OS 5 already does this.

Another significant improvement in Cobalt is support for threading and background processes, which will allow multiple apps to run at the same time. the Palm OS has some rudimentary support for this now, but it will be much more robust in Cobalt.

To help ensure that the operating system is stable, the new version includes a protected memory system, so each application has its own dynamic heap. It also includes process protection.

Palm OS Cobalt will see the end of some limitations that have irritated users for years, including the 16-category limit and the 4k limit on memos.

Cobalt will include APIs for roaming on wireless networks. This will allow Palm OS handhelds to move between types of wireless networks, like Wi-Fi to GPRS, without the user having to go through the hassle of logging off one network and logging on to another.

Cobalt will use pluggable I/O interfaces, which means that licensees will be able to easily pick and choose which methods they use for input, for example Graffiti II or a keyboard.

After Palm acquired the assets of BE, Inc., that company’s developers were put to work on their new employer’s operating system. Cobalt will use multimedia and graphics frameworks from the BeOS.

What Businesses Want

Palm OS Cobalt will offer many features business want, like support for Web services and accessing Microsoft Exchange and Lotus email servers.

During its creation, the developers have emphasized security. “The Cobalt platform is being rewritten from the ground up to provide security from the deepest level of the operating system,” PalmSource’s CEO David Nagel said during a speech at the CeBIT tradeshow last June.

It will also have the ability to view files in the formats business users typically use, like Microsoft Office documents and Adobe Acrobat PDFs.

Upgrades

Many users of Palm OS 5 devices are asking whether they will be able to upgrade to Cobalt. For those who are new to this, releasing a new handheld operating system doesn’t work the same way as it does with desktops and laptops. The upgrade doesn’t come straight from PalmSource. Instead, PalmSource gives the new operating system to its licensees who customize it for their individual models and release it. It is up to the licensee whether any upgrades are available. Most mid-range and high-end Palm OS models have flash ROMs, which means that they potentially could be upgraded, but no Palm OS licensee has committed to this.

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