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PalmSource conference witnesses fresh OS

[FEBRUARY 12, 2001] -- The new software subsidiary of Palm Inc. finally got a name (PalmSource) with the unveiling of the fresh operating system for the parent firm's PDA. David Nagel, president and CEO of the newly christened company, did the honors during the kickoff speech at the PalmSource Conference and Expo held in San Jose last week.

Nagel demoed a test version of the Palm OS 5, which is designed to make handhelds running it more powerful, more secure, and better able to handle multimedia and to connect to wireless and corporate networks, he said. A power outage delayed Nagel's speech for three hours. When at last he took the stage, he joked with his remarkably patient audience, "Welcome to PalmSource ... finally."

The company is billing its new operating system as a "... foundation to build a new class of devices that will help make mobile computing ubiquitous." And it has promised that the OS will provide "compatibility with existing Palm OS software programs." But a source inside Palm told e-ADT that only about 80% of existing programs are expected to be compatible. The remainder, the source said, will not run on the new OS because of non-standard programming techniques used by developers to optimize performance of programs on the old Dragonball processors.

The final version won't ship until sometime this summer, but the company handed out Palm OS 5 Compatibility CDs to conference attendees. This preliminary version included some tools and 20 compatible applications. Members of Palm's OS Developer Program will be able to download a number of tools from the Palm OS Web site (http://www.palmos.com).

"Not nearly enough people who buy the devices are buying applications," Nagel told attendees. "If you can't make a living, we can't make a living."

The operating system upgrade also marks Palm's shift to a new class of chips, from Motorola's relatively slow (about 33MHz) Dragonball processor to more powerful ARM-compliant processors. The range of processors Palm plans to support starts with the ARM 7 CPU and scales to the highest performance ARM chips from Intel, Motorola and Texas Instruments -- processors expected to deliver clock speeds up to 10 times faster. Developers attending the conference were encouraged to test their applications on pre-release hardware from these companies.

According to the company, an estimated 13,000 software programs currently run on the Palm OS, not including in-house software programs developed by enterprise organizations. Palm also licenses its OS to other device makers, including Handspring, Sony and Samsung. Palm completed the separation of its hardware and software businesses in January 2002, and Palm Inc. is now a licensee of PalmSource.

Despite a shifting global economy and wary U.S. consumers, the PDA market grew 17% last year, according to high-tech market researchers at Cahners In-Stat Group, with total shipments reaching 8 million units for the year. These numbers seem positive, but they represent a significant slowdown in the growth rate from the previous year. Long term, however, the global market forecast for PDAs is positive; In-Stat researchers are predicting annual growth through 2005 in the double-digit range, peaking in about 2004 at 30%, and then tapering off in 2005 as the market matures.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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