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Windows Treo Questions Palm OS Future

On 26-Sep-05, the heads of Palm, Microsoft, and Verizon Wireless held a joint press conference to announce a new Palm Treo smartphone running Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0, not the Palm OS. Although rumors had pegged such a device for months (you can see pictures of one at Engadget, which also had video in early August of what appears to be a developmental model), the announcement still came as a bit of a shock to people who have always associated Palm the company (in its many iterations) with the Palm operating system.

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Despite the press event, the Windows Treo is not yet a shipping product, and doesn’t even have a model number. It will be available in early 2006, and will at first be exclusive to the Verizon Wireless network.

Why go with Windows Mobile when Palm has invested so heavily in the Palm OS? Or, as a friend of mine commented, "That just seems like the worst business plan ever. If you have Palm in your name, you should still be committed to the OS." If you’ve watched Palm over the years, however, you know it’s not so simple. If you haven’t, well, it can be outright confusing. But despite the apparent oddity of a Windows-based, Palm-branded handheld, it just may be the thing to ensure that Palm, Inc. stays in business.

A Gnarled Family Tree — The last time I wrote about Palm for TidBITS (see "PalmSource to Drop Mac Support in Palm OS Cobalt" in TidBITS-717), Palm, Inc. had spun off its Palm OS division into a subsidiary called PalmSource. Up to that point, Palm had become the dominant handheld vendor, but didn’t do much to innovate in its space, leaving the door open to rivals such as Microsoft to build Windows CE (also called PocketPC and now Windows Mobile) and Research in Motion (RIM) to succeed with its Blackberry handhelds.



Realizing that it needed some sort of smartphone product, Palm purchased rival Handspring – which was originally formed by the founders of Palm who had bailed to forge their own handheld path – to acquire Handspring’s promising Treo line of smartphones. Together, Palm and Handspring became palmOne (with annoying capitalization). Palm was going to design the hardware, while PalmSource tried the Microsoft route of licensing its operating system back to palmOne and to other vendors such as Sony.


Unfortunately, things went south from there, especially for PalmSource. Sony abandoned the market entirely, leaving palmOne the only large Palm OS licensee. Worse, the highly touted Palm OS 6, also known as Palm OS Cobalt, was largely ignored by palmOne. Although Cobalt was designed specifically with mobile handhelds in mind, palmOne had successfully adapted Palm OS 5 (also called Garnet) to perform those functions in its Treo line. To date, nearly two years after PalmSource was spun off, Cobalt hasn’t appeared on any handhelds (though Oswin Technology demonstrated a Cobalt smartphone at the last PalmSource DevCon in May).

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In July 2005, palmOne tossed $30 million to PalmSource to acquire full rights to the Palm name, and renamed itself the appropriately capitalized Palm, Inc. PalmSource, meanwhile, shifted its development efforts and is now working on building Cobalt to run on top of Linux. In September, PalmSource announced that it is being acquired by Tokyo-based Access Co., Ltd. for $324.3 million in cash.

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Looking at where the players have ended up so far, I can’t help but draw comparisons to Apple and the Macintosh: as young companies, Apple and Palm dominated their fields, grew complacent, and were slowly but surely pushed to the edge of the market – by Microsoft. Unlike a lot of people, I’ve never believed that if Apple had licensed the Mac OS, they’d now own the personal computer market; that approach has really worked only once… with Microsoft. (The jury is still out on Linux, but that’s a slightly different case: Linux is a grass-roots operating system that has made enormous strides in certain highly technical markets, where the driving force is not market domination on the road to riches, but market domination on the road to weakening Microsoft.)

Perhaps if PalmSource had been able to convince Palm to start using Cobalt, they would have fared better. But from the outside, it looks as if they spent two years tinkering instead of selling Cobalt to device makers. "Real artists ship," as Steve Jobs is famously quoted.


Enter Microsoft — While Palm has been flailing about like a kid who’s just eaten all of his Halloween candy, Microsoft has been relatively slow and steady in its Windows Mobile development. The last version I really got my hands on was in 2001 when I reviewed an HP iPaq for HOW Magazine, which, while an improvement over previous versions, still felt counter-intuitive and awkward. Windows Mobile 5.0, which powers the upcoming Treo, seems more usable.


And one of the things that Windows Mobile offers that the Palm OS has had trouble with is remote integration with Microsoft Exchange. Companies invested in Exchange Server want their employees to be able to interact directly on smartphones, which the new Treo is capable of providing. The new device doesn’t possess the capability to receive email messages pushed to it – the feature that has made RIM’s Blackberry handhelds so popular – but it will be available in the future.

One upside, at least from what I could tell by watching portions of the streamed Palm/Microsoft/Verizon press conference, is that Palm has applied their expertise in phone software to the new Treo. Aside from the advantage of having a phone and organizer combined into one device, the main advantage of the Treo has been its superior software. For example, Palm demonstrated how the new Treo can decline an incoming call by sending a quick text message to the person who’s calling, rather than send them to voicemail or ignoring the call.

Another big advantage to the Windows Treo is the capability to use Verizon Wireless’s BroadbandAccess service on its EV-DO network, which offers download speeds averaging 400 to 700 Kbps, according to the companies’ press release. The current Treos don’t appear to be able to support EV-DO yet.

Palm Support on the Mac — As usual, native Mac support is either nonexistent or unclear; we’ll know more when the device is actually released. However, I have to commend Mac developer Mark/Space for their positioning: they currently offer The Missing Sync for Windows Mobile 2.0 for existing Windows Mobile devices (though Windows Mobile 5.0 is not yet supported).

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It’s possible that Palm may update Palm Desktop to provide compatibility with the new device, but I’m not holding my breath. The company only recently (in the last few months) fixed a problem I wrote about in August 2004 (see "Escaping Palm HotSync Installation Hell" in TidBITS-744). The installer would run into a permissions problem that was infuriating to work around.

Palm Desktop 4.2.1 Rev D finally fixes the problem. (Technically, Rev C fixed it, but then was unavailable for a short time until Rev D appeared. If you downloaded and installed Palm Desktop 4.2.1 Rev C and HotSync works fine, you don’t need to update to Rev D; the installer is a 17.1 MB download.)

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Note that when I was helping a friend install Palm Desktop 4.2.1 Rev C on his PowerBook, I needed to eradicate every trace of Palm Desktop and HotSync to get the installer to work correctly. Simply trashing the application folder, as Palm recommends, didn’t do the job; we had to find and delete all Palm and HotSync preferences and related files (such as synchronization conduits) before installing.

The Future of the Palm OS — I’m not quite ready to claim that the Palm OS is dead: Palm, Inc. continues to sell plenty of organizers and Treos (470,000 Treos were sold in the most recent financial quarter), and Palm CEO Ed Colligan stated at the Windows Treo press conference that the company would continue to sell Palm OS Treos. It also has four years of Palm OS licensing paid for as part of the Palm, Inc. branding deal with PalmSource.

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And yet, with PalmSource sold off and Microsoft stepping in, I can’t help but think that the Palm OS needs to start showing something spectacular in the future to avoid the fate of other up-and-coming operating systems. Look at what happened to the BeOS: it was bought by PalmSource and never heard from again.

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