Palm OS: Making the Wireless Transition
By Leander Kahney, Mon Feb 05 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Palm Computing has enjoyed unrivaled success in the handheld arena for the last 5 years. But with the rest of the industry shifting toward wireless data access, something the Palm was never designed to facilitate, can they keep the advantage?


In Europe and Asia the wireless Internet is delivered by smartphones. Europeans send short messages to each other, while Asians read horoscopes and place bets. The mobile Net hasn't taken off yet in America, but one platform poised to deliver it is the well-established Palm device.

In the beginning

The Palm operating system (or Palm OS) was originally designed by Jeff Hawkins. To conceive the interface, Hawkins carried around a block of wood for weeks, pretending it was a prototype device - taking notes, jotting down phone numbers and meeting dates. At first, people thought he was crazy.

But the system he designed worked flawlessly, and ended-up delivering Palm's legendary ease-of-use. It did precisely what it was supposed to do: remember dates, phone numbers, and store a list of contacts.

Hawkins' bare bones approach was appropriate five years ago, but times are rapidly changing. These days, people want their Palms to do all sorts of things: play MP3s and movie files, display digital pictures, and deliver the Internet anytime and anywhere.

The problem is that the Palm OS wasn't really designed to do these kinds of things. It's old and a bit quirky, and some people think it's not up to the rigors of the wireless age. Nonetheless, Palm manufacturers are soldiering on with a bevy of new products and services.

Each licensee has a slightly different vision. Palm is interested in managing information, Handspring in communication, and Sony in wireless multimedia. Peripheral manufacturer OmniSky, which makes clip-on modems, is developing location-based services.

Palm Computing

Although Palm seems quiet on the hardware front, they're currently developing more wireless solutions than any other company in the Palm economy. The company is making a big push to provide wireless access to corporate backbones, allowing Palms to have mobile access to systems "behind the firewall," like Oracle databases and SAP servers.

It's also very keen to offer wireless synchronization, allowing users to "sync" their handhelds over the ether.

In December the company launched their MyPalm portal, a wireless information clearinghouse that offers web synchronization and a variety of information services, including weather forecasts and stock quotes.

Byron Connell, who heads up Palm's Consumer Group, said the next generation of Palm handhelds will have built-in support a wide range of wireless technologies, including remote calendaring, telephony, wireless email and SMS, paging, Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless Ethernet.

"These are part of Palm's core vision," he said. "They will be part of the standard package in the next generation of products."

Palm is also working on eWallet; a wireless payment system that the company hopes will make swiping your credit card obsolete. The system is supported by VeriFone, a manufacturer of sales terminals, as well as Visa, which lends it tremendous clout.

Handspring

Hawkins, along with former CEO Donna Dubrinsky, left Palm Computing to found Handspring in 1998. The company makes a line of Palm OS handhelds called Visors that feature a unique "Springboard" slot for adding extra hardware like MP3 players, GPS modules and wireless modems.

The company wants its line of Visors to be used as mobile phones, as well as wireless Web browsers, e-mail clients, and SMS terminals.

Handspring has already released the VisorPhone, a digital GSM phone that clips into the Springboard slot. And it recently announced its intention to buy Bluelark Systems, the creators of Blazer, a speedy color Web browser that uses a proxy server to re-format Web content for small mobile devices.

Handspring, Palm and the other handheld manufacturers will face tough competition from a new range of Palm smartphones to be released this year. But Handspring is skeptical that smartphones can effectively deliver wireless data services.

"Entering data on a phone with a keypad is not a good experience," said Calin Pacurariu, Handspring's product manager for wireless products. "It's dramatically better with a handheld."

"Even telephony is better on a handheld," Pacurariu said, "because the larger screen allows you to see all kinds of information about the call, such as how many people are on a conference call, who is on hold and how long they've been waiting."

The company is also skeptical about streaming multimedia and other broadband applications, even though GPRS and other 2.5G technologies are slated to roll out before long.

"I'm just not sure what the applications are." he said. "Videoconferencing? There's too much overhead and there are cultural issues. We tend to be more conservative. We ask ourselves, 'does anyone want this stuff?'"

Sony

Sony, for one, thinks customers want this stuff, especially wireless audio and video. The company makes the stylish Clie, a trim, silvery Palm OS handheld.

The Clie, which stands for Communications Link Information Entertainment, has a unique jog wheel and a slot for Sony's proprietary Memory Stick, a gum-sized storage card that also allows data to be exchanging with camcorders, digital cameras, PCs and the like. Sony also plans to release GPS receivers, cameras and MP3 players that fit snugly into the Memory Stick slot.

Sony clearly believes that the extra memory and expansion capabilities make the Clie not just an organizer, but also an entertainment device.

The company has teamed up with GoAmerica, a wireless ISP, to provide news, information, games and entertainment over the airwaves. The service, which debuts nationwide in July, will include a clip-on wireless modem that connects to wireless CDPD (cellular digital packet data) networks, and where available, much faster Ricochet networks.

The Ricochet service, available in 13 U.S. cities, is the closest thing in the U.S. to a broadband wireless service. With 128kbps data speeds, it's suitable for delivering audio. CDPD operates at 19.2 kbps.

Phones

Perhaps the most radical new Palm handhelds are the clutch of Palm smartphones that will appear throughout the next 18 months.

Some of the largest handset manufacturers - Kyocera, Samsung, Motorola and Nokia - are expected to debut Palm-powered smartphones this year and early next year.

First off the block will be Kyocera's pdQ smartphone, a tri-mode CDMA phone that runs the Palm OS.

Expected this Spring, the pdQ is a retooling of Qualcomm's pdQ, an unwieldy brick that Kyocera acquired last year when it bought Qualcomm's CDMA handset division. The Kyocera model promises to be a slimmed-down model, weighing in at 7.3 oz.

"Why would you want to have a separate cell phone, a PDA and a pager?" asked Kyocera spokesman Rick Goetter. "It's the bat belt syndrome."

Samsung Electronics, the largest manufacturer of CDMA phones in the U.S., is readying a similar Palm smartphone, which should be available in the summer.

Early next year Motorola will launch a more ambitious device: a Palm-powered tri-band GSM smartphone with a large color screen. The device will support General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), the fast wireless data system that is beginning to roll out in Europe and Asia.

Curiously, Motorola is also member of the Symbian consortium, which is developing an operating system that competes directly with Palm's. The EPOC operating system, co-developed by Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Psion, is an advanced platform for wireless handhelds and smartphones.

With the Palm deal, Motorola appears to be hedging its bets. As well as the Palm smartphone, the company said it will continue to release EPOC devices, including a phone-pad it is co-developing with Psion.

Meanwhile, we can expect an avalanche of EPOC smartphones later this year from Ericsson, Panasonic, Motorola, Nokia, Philips and Sanyo.

Storm clouds

There's a lot of buzz surrounding Palm but it's not all sunshine and roses.

The Palm OS was designed to run simple, unconnected organizers, not sophisticated Net-connected mini-computers. Lots of clever fixes have kept it afloat but it is beginning to spring a few leaks.

"As a platform it is starting to reach its limits," said Omnisky's Amir. "In 18 months the OS will become a liability. It's already starting to be one."

Palm 's chief problem is that the operating system is only 16-bit. The OS was designed to run on older, cheaper processors. Faster, modern chips sport more powerful 32-bit designs. Future Palms will need the extra speed to handle the demands of a real-time wireless device, like juggling simultaneous voice, data and Bluetooth connections.

The Palm OS also runs into difficulty when running more than one task at a time - known as multitasking. The operating system itself can multitask, but the applications running on top of it can't. And memory isn't protected. New applications can grab memory from ones already up and running, wreaking havoc.

"It's extremely limited," said Rob Enderle, a senior analyst with Giga Information Group. "It's a 32-bit world and Palm has a 16-bit platform. They're behind the eight ball."

Palm late last year said Version 5.0 (it is currently at Version 3.5) will support 32-bit processors based on designs by ARM, a U.K. chip designer.

The transition will undoubtedly hurt some of Palm's developers whose software will likely become incompatible.

Enderle said it would be easier for Palm to license EPOC, or even buy Psion to get access to EPOC. Palm is widely rumored to be "in talks" with both Psion and Symbian.

Palm's situation is akin to Apple's four years ago, Enderle said. Apple desperately needed to update its aging operating system. The company bought NeXT and eventually used its OS, NeXTStep, as the foundation for Mac OS X.

"It's not going to be easy," Enderle said. "It's just painful to watch. They're going to go through some transition pains."

But Palm and many of its licensees dismiss the "technical issues" as hand grenades lobbed by the competition.

"It's not getting in the way of anything we're trying to accomplish in the telephony space and I think there's a lot of Microsoft FUD [Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt] in there," said Palm's Connel, referring to Microsoft's infamous tactics of disparaging competitors.

"The problems," Connel said, "either don't exist or can be worked around."

Handspring's Pacurariu also expressed confidence in the platform.

"From our standpoint, we don't see any limitations in terms of the kind of wireless products we expect to see." Pacurariu said. "It's a great platform for communications products. These 'concerns' come from competitors. These people that are saying there are issues with the platform have a competitive reason for saying that."

Based in Santa Clara, California, Leander Kahney is an editor at Wired magazine and covers mobile technology for TheFeature.