At the PalmSource Developer Conference last week, PalmSource, the company that develops and licenses the Palm OS, revealed details about its forthcoming handheld operating system and also dropped some disappointing news: the company will stop supporting the Macintosh. Fortunately, a Mac developer is stepping in to pick up the pieces – and hopefully improve the Palm experience for Mac users.
Cobalt and Garnet — Palm OS Cobalt, formerly known as Palm OS 6, is a near-complete rewrite of the Palm OS that incorporates advanced features such as multitasking and multithreading, memory protection, improved security, and support for larger screens and more memory (up to 256 MB). Cobalt also boosts the graphics and multimedia capabilities of the Palm OS, thanks to contributions from engineers acquired in Palm, Inc.’s 2001 purchase of Be, Inc. (see "Palm Gets Be in Its Bonnet" in TidBITS-593).
Palm OS Cobalt is expected to be available on new handheld devices later this year, though no specific timeline was mentioned; the software has been delivered to PalmSource licensees, so the time frame depends on when new devices will be ready.
PalmSource also announced that the next revision of Palm OS 5 (the latest version shipping with current handhelds) will be renamed Palm OS Garnet and will be geared toward use in hybrid "smartphones" such as PalmOne’s popular Treo 600, which currently runs Palm OS 5.2.1.
(This is a good opportunity to recap the Palm players, since the names seem to change every time I write about them for TidBITS. In 2002, Palm, Inc. spun off its operating system division into a subsidiary called PalmSource. In 2003, after Palm’s board of directors gave the final go-ahead on PalmSource becoming an independent company, Palm, Inc. also bought its chief rival Handspring, and renamed the combined company PalmOne. These moves have led to all sorts of overlap. For example, the PalmOne Tungsten T3 runs on the standard Palm OS 5, licensed from PalmSource, but includes improvements to the built-in applications such as Calendar and Contacts – themselves previously known as Date Book and Address Book. Other Palm OS licensees, such as Sony, make their own changes to the Palm OS as they see fit. Explaining it always makes me dive for the aspirin bottle.)
Goodbye, Mac — Another feature of Palm OS Cobalt is that it "improves compatibility with Microsoft Windows," according to PalmSource, specifically Microsoft Outlook. More to the point, due to a change in how HotSync synchronization works in Cobalt, plus changes in the architecture of the built-in applications, synchronization with Macs won’t be supported in Cobalt.
To be honest, this isn’t a huge surprise, given that Palm’s current support for the Mac seems to have evaporated, and at least some Macintosh engineers have been laid off. When Apple released Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, compatibility problems arose that have yet to be fixed. (The problem appears to be related to permissions for HotSync components; some people report that reinstalling Palm Desktop and HotSync Manager under Panther work fine, while others have seen success by reinstalling the software while logged in as the root user.) Although Palm has occasionally taken interest in the Mac – such as buying Claris Organizer and turning it into Palm Desktop for Macintosh – the company’s overall history of Mac support has seemed more like the kid brother your parents insisted you take to the movies with your date; he can get into the show, but has to sit somewhere else and can’t have any popcorn.
PalmSource’s statement about the situation hints at possible ongoing work between the company and Apple, but the emphasis is clearly on third-party solutions. Michael Mace, PalmSource’s chief competitive officer (who used to be an Apple executive), issued the following statement to selected media outlets saying, "PalmSource is fortunate to have a great Palm OS developer community who provide solutions for Macintosh compatibility today. Palm OS provides an open and flexible architecture and allows its licensees to decide whether to ship a Mac compatibility solution with their Palm Powered device. (One such solution is provided by Mark/Space.) We are continuing our efforts with Apple to provide compatibility between Palm OS and Macintosh."
The Missing Sync — Fortunately, Mac support isn’t completely drying up. Mark/Space, which already ships Missing Sync for Palm OS and Missing Sync for Sony Clie, announced that the next major version of their utility would not only continue Mac synchronization support, but improve upon it.
In its current incarnation, Missing Sync for Palm OS 2.0.1 isn’t a synchronization tool in the same vein as HotSync Manager. If your Palm handheld has an SD (Secure Digital) card inserted when you run the software, the card appears on your Mac desktop as if it were a removable disk. Missing Sync also includes plug-ins for iPhoto and iTunes, enabling you to send photos and MP3 files to the handheld’s SD card for viewing and listening using third-party software (SplashPhoto and AeroPlayer). Lastly, Missing Sync features Internet Sharing, where the Palm connects directly to the Internet via your Mac, letting you surf the Web, check email, and, for those who have missed it, use AvantGo (which was never updated to support Mac OS X).
The Cobalt version of Missing Sync, however, will be a complete replacement for the Palm HotSync architecture, enabling data synchronization between the Palm and Apple’s iApps (iCal, Address Book, and iMovie along with iTunes and iPhoto), or between the Palm and Microsoft Entourage. The interface will be more in line with Mac OS X, and will also offer improved Bluetooth synchronization and synchronization over Wi-Fi networks. The new architecture will also support current HotSync conduits, so if you use other personal information managers such as Now Up-to-Date & Contact or Chronos Personal Organizer, the current conduits will work. This includes Apple’s own iSync conduit, which currently works with HotSync Manager; however, my experiences synchronizing Palms with iSync have been disappointing. (Developers can also choose to support the new Missing Sync architecture.)
Missing Sync for Cobalt will support handhelds running Palm OS 4 and later, and Mac OS X 10.2 and later. Mark/Space has published a technical white paper (a 72K PDF) and a marketing white paper (a 264K PDF) with more information.
Mark/Space expects the cost of the new Missing Sync to be about $40, though it’s still up in the air whether PalmOne or other hardware companies will choose to bundle it with their devices. It would be a shame if Mac users were forced to pay a premium for synchronization capabilities, though it wouldn’t be without precedent: the early PalmPilots required Mac users to buy the Palm MacPac, which included a serial adapter that plugged into the Mac’s serial port.
Still, even if I have to pay for synchronization capabilities, it’s worth the cost. I still use my Palm handheld every day, because it’s better suited as an organizer than the iPod’s calendar and contacts features. I’m also optimistic that a company like Mark/Space, which has been developing Mac software for years, can focus its efforts on making a worthwhile Palm data synchronization tool for the Mac.