Palm OS Goes Linux
By Carlo Longino, Wed Dec 08 23:15:00 GMT 2004

PalmSource is buying a Chinese mobile Linux developer, and will run its proprietary operating system over the open-source one. Sounds confusing, but it could be a smart move -- both for PalmSource and Linux.

Palm has been down this path before: it bought Be in 2001 and has rolled in many of that operating system's features into Palm OS, particularly the new version 6, or Cobalt. Though Cobalt has been delivered to licensees, no devices running it are in the market, making this a slightly curious time to announce such a significant change of strategy. PalmSource, however, is saying that its Linux efforts will be in addition to, and not replacing, its current offerings.

The company is buying Chinese mobile software developer China MobileSoft, which has developed a version of Linux optimized for mobile phones. PalmSource will take CMS' software and run the Palm OS over its kernel and certain Linux services, maintaining the Palm user interface as well as middleware and some applications.

Reaction from the developer and user community has been mixed, with some wondering if the move represents a death knell for Palm OS. PalmSource, of course, says no way. The announcement may be an admission that what's going on with the Palm OS right now isn't working, and there's some truth to the party line that using Linux will make things move faster (ask Palm users waiting for Wi-Fi card support if this is a good thing). Importantly, it also gives them significant traction in China, where CMS software is already licensed by 10 manufacturers and running on 30 handsets.

But the deal finally offers a clear way forward for Linux on mobile devices, where it's often mentioned as a potentially killer smartphone OS. But without significant improvement, or at least movement, in the user interface, it's going nowhere. Adding the popular and familiar Palm interface over a Linux core may be just the push Linux needs to become a viable competitor in the mobile OS space. While the Palm OS won't go open-source, Palm is expected to contribute some code back into the community, which could benefit others looking to take Linux mobile.

There are plenty of pitfalls PalmSource must negotiate, to be sure. First and foremost will be not to alienate its most important asset, its developer base. It existing applications will run on the new version, perhaps requiring them to be recompiled, and the move also throws things open to Linux developers, which will be able to write native applications for the platform. Much of Palm's strength comes from these developers, and it must serve their needs adequately for this move to pay off.