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PalmSource updates OS for 'smart' phones

PalmSource, the software spin-off of PDA maker palmOne Inc., last week unveiled an updated version of its operating system designed for the growing "smart" mobile phones market. Speaking at the annual PalmSource developer conference in San Jose, Calif., PalmSource CEO and President David Nagel called the new Cobalt OS "the most important piece of software [PalmSource has] ever delivered, a revolutionary operating system that will have as big an impact as the original Palm OS [as the original Pilot PDA]."

Nagel told his audience that more than 80% of the Palm OS code base was rewritten for Cobalt (technically Version 6), allowing the company to compete in the growing market for "smartphones," which handle both voice and data. "Moving forward, diversity is a key strategy of ours," Nagel said. "Ten years from now, every phone will be a smartphone."

Nagel conceded that Cobalt puts a burden on Palm developers, who have not traditionally addressed smartphone-type devices. "It's a more complex world. You have to worry about carriers," he said. "Most of them have never done these things." Nagel has been on something of a crusade over the past few years to get Palm developers to shift gears and create software for this emerging hardware platform. "It's very important to get them to start thinking about a wireless world," he said.

But PalmSource has no intention of leaving developers of software for traditional personal digital assistants behind. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company will maintain a "dual-version" strategy that will allow it to keep Version 5, renamed "Garnet," available for plain old PDAs, Nagel said.

Nagel demoed the new operating system, which features new graphics technologies, a new command bar, and a built-in media player that runs both audio and video. Cobalt will be able to perform more complex tasks than the previous version of the OS. During the demo, a user was able to talk on the phone while watching a movie and checking stock quotes.

Cobalt is designed to compete in the growing smartphone market with offerings from Microsoft and with Symbian, the mobile OS controlled by Nokia, and to bring PalmSource strongly into this new hybrid territory. According to industry analyst firm IDC, sales of handheld computing devices without phone functions slipped 18% last year. Nokia currently controls about 65% of the smartphone market, according to IDC. And though PalmSource edged Microsoft last year in that market (14% vs. 12%, respectively), commitments from cell phone makers Motorola and Samsung give Microsoft the edge in 2004.

For its part, PalmSource has smartphone licensee agreements with palmOne's Treo line, Samsung and Kyocera Corp. According to PalmSource's Nagel, the Treo 600, which has been garnering rave reviews, is the most popular device to date with the European phone carrier Orange. He claims the device has generated the highest average revenue per user of any smartphone.

"With our operating system, smartphones are more usable, more compatible and more flexible than they are with our competitors," Nagel said. "We will continue to expand these efforts and make good on the strategy of taking technology, putting it in small packages and making it useful."

Cobalt is now shipping to device makers, Nagel said. A PalmSource spokesperson estimated that the first Cobalt-based devices will arrive sometime this summer, but added that delivery dates are determined by the device makers that license the software.

This year's PalmSource conference drew an estimated 1,000 attendees to San Jose's Fairmont Hotel, an increase of a little more than half that number last year, according to conference organizers.

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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