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Palm Column

When is a Palm not a Palm?

by Shawn Barnett
December 2002, issue 47

This has been a weird issue. Never before have I looked at Palm OS devices of such varied shapes and sizes, and for so many disparate purposes. A Palm has ceased to be a little blocky computer for phone numbers and appointments and is moving into areas previously unimagined. Each of the major companies has branched out with different goals, seeking separate markets, and Palm itself has split into two companies, one of which is charged with forging ahead to provide solutions to its licensees even as its licensees seek to differentiate themselves from the others with special icons, different processors and form factors, and different standards for images, storage, expansion, even movie and voice recording formats.

I just tried to beam a voice recording from Palm's new Tungsten T to the Sony CLIE NX70V, and while it beamed, it crashed the computer when I found and tried to play the file. That brings up an interesting question about whether the Palm OS is getting too diversified too fast for PalmSource to keep up. I have argued that Palm should be providing more solutions to the licensees. Because it hasn't in the past, licensees have seen fit to modify the OS themselves, creating data files and drivers that are becoming less and less compatible. Palm was shackled from innovation, because the licensees would cry foul if the hardware side of Palm came up with a software innovation that it wanted to keep to itself. Thus we have the split to free up the hardware division.

PalmSource has only just begun, so what will happen next is unclear. What we're seeing now are more incompatible initiatives being launched. Currently Handspring, Palm, and PalmSource all have their own corporate email systems in place or in the works, a fact that begs the question of just what PalmSource's purpose is going to be. Exactly who is going to license the solution that PalmSource develops? Sony, AlphaSmart, and HandEra? Samsung? Kyocera? Will businesses really want to standardize on any one of these Palm OS solutions when they could go get a more generic one that will work with any Palm OS device? Or on the increasingly more standard Pocket PC?

I just wonder if it's still important that basic data types across Palm platforms remain compatible, especially as we begin to add methods of exchanging said data, like Bluetooth. Should it be a standard to make basic data types compatible with all capable hardware, like those voice recording files that didn't work between a Palm and a Sony?

As it stands, the latest devices are morphing into different families. It brings back my biology classes where I would stare at the wall as they said "Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species," over and over like some hypnotic mantra. It obviously worked on me, or I wouldn't have found the wall so fascinating. The new Palm OS devices make me wonder if the next step in these diverging evolutionary paths will begin to prevent data interaction, much as divergent species lose the ability to procreate with time.

It used to be that Pocket PCs were the ones with split vision and incompatibility between devices, but as the Palm OS continues to grow, we're seeing what might become a damaging trend. It's taken years for Macs and PCs to be able to exchange files. Some of it was achieved because Apple decided to conform to industry standards, and some of it was due to Microsoft writing the most popular office application for both platforms. In this case, however, we're seeing what was once one operating system begin to splinter for the sake of competition among licensees. I have to wonder if this competition will kill the friendly nature and compatibility inherent in the Palm OS. I certainly can't blame the individual companies for innovating; but perhaps they should consider making compatibility with other Palm OS devices the litmus test for final completion of a given project. Maybe even a beamable runtime or conversion engine of the given application when applicable.

The Good News

There's always good news, and in this case it's that there are so many devices to choose from. Innovation is spawning new products that serve special needs, like education, as seen in the unique full-size keyboard computer, the AlphaSmart Dana. Sony's NX70V is a multimedia powerhouse, with most of the software pieces in place to handle music, video, pictures, and communication, all with a high-res screen in a strikingly unique package. The Handspring, Samsung, and Kyocera phones have broken new ground in functionality and appearance. And the Palm Tungsten T skips the present, jumping from the simple m515 to a futuristic collapsible design with wireless wizardry ready to dial a phone or browse the Internet.

The best news is that the Palm OS is now seen as useful for more purposes. Those of us who know the beauty of the interface were convinced all along, but it takes some vision to conceive that a large keyboard computer running an operating system designed for a small handheld might find a market. I've long thought that a Tablet Palm might have a market among the elderly and vision impaired, and even among data collectors. As Symbol recently told me regarding their SPT 1700 and 1800 rugged handhelds, people in data collection applications don't want high-power, battery draining CPUs in their devices, they're happy with Dragonball for its long runtime and reliability, and the monochrome screen works just fine. While the Tablet PCs shown in this magazine are amazing technology demonstrations, I tend to think that a tablet should be simple, light weight (like the AlphaSmart's two pounds), and have a long battery life. It should be a big Palm Pilot, something that doesn't threaten to burn a pattern into your arm from CPU heat, and its cost should be low enough that dropping it wouldn't break the bank. The Dana actually offers a lot of this functionality when you rotate the screen, plus a full keyboard when you turn it back.

Sony has told me that their aim is to make the handheld a reasonable replacement for a notebook computer. That sounds just like AlphaSmart's vision, but Sony's thrust with the NX70V is toward entertainment, not just data collection. In no time at all, I expect their computers to be able to load and play a copy-protected movie via Memory Stick. Just a guess, but Sony's the one who could do it. Owning the content and the means is power.

Handspring's vision is the communicator, making one device serve all of one's communication needs, and Palm seems to have the same vision, trying two methods at once: the wirelessly connected PDA that works with a cell phone for communication (Tungsten T), and a data-centric PDA that has its own communication built in (Tungsten W).

Whether good or bad, what Microsoft has been trying to do for years, first with @Work, then with CE, now with .Net-to make their OS useful in many places-is happening to the Palm OS the way it usually does: gradually and from multiple camps at once, with grassroots effort. The challenge will be keeping it all working across differing products so that Palm remains an OS where a solution can be conceived, programmed, and taken to the problem, regardless of device.

-Shawn Barnett,

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