Making the case for Windows on Palm devices

Palm exec talks nice about Windows, as the Net buzzes about what comes next for Treo handhelds.

A senior Palm executive says his company could benefit from building a mobile computing device that runs on the Windows operating system made by once-bitter rival Microsoft.

In an interview, Palm Chief Financial Officer Andrew Brown said that building a Treo that runs on the mobile version of Windows might help the company woo corporate customers who have been reticent to buy its Palm OS-based gadgets.

"CIOs don't get fired for using Microsoft products," Brown said, though he did not say whether Palm has such a product in the works.


What's new:
Palm's money man says there are benefits to offering a Windows Mobile-based Treo, but is stopping short of confirming the maker will do so.

Bottom line:
Palm has long said it would consider using a non-Palm operating system, but the time may be right for it to do so as Microsoft steps up its mobile e-mail push.

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With Sony's decision to exit the handheld market and the closure of Tapwave, maker of the Zodiac handheld gaming device, Palm has emerged as the only major backer of the Palm OS, which is sold by PalmSource, a separately traded Palm spinoff.

Despite that shared heritage with PalmSource, Brown described Palm as neutral to the operating system its devices use--and the types of e-mail servers to which they connect.

"The fact is we are Switzerland, whether it be over the e-mail server or the OS," Brown told CNET last week after a presentation to financial analysts at an RBC Capital Markets conference in San Francisco.

Nonetheless, Palm isn't likely to abandon the Palm OS. Brown noted that the company just extended its deal with PalmSource, paving the way for future generations of Palm OS products as well.

Brown's comments come just as enthusiast sites are buzzing with photos and videos purporting to be a next-generation Treo running Windows Mobile on a Verizon-branded device. The company has been studying other operating systems, including Windows Mobile, for some time.

Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that if the photos of a Windows Treo product making the rounds are authentic, the product should be reasonably close to shipping to carriers and could be in consumers' hands by the end of this year.

Despite Brown's comments, a Palm representative declined to say whether the company has such a device in the works, but reiterated Palm's past statement that the ability to offer a choice of operating systems was one of the benefits of spinning off PalmSource. "We only would consider offering another OS as an additional choice if customers want it and if it represented incremental business," the Palm representative added.

A Microsoft representative declined to comment.

Palm, which once had the vast majority of the handheld market, has seen its share drop in recent years. Last November,

In a report earlier this month, Gartner showed the Palm OS running on just 19 percent of handhelds, compared with 46 percent of devices running Windows Mobile and 23 percent running Research In Motion's software. Gartner's figures include handhelds and wireless devices like the traditional BlackBerry, but exclude smart phones, including the Treo.

Palm has already taken some steps to move itself closer to Windows. Last October, the company inked a deal with Microsoft to allow Palm OS-based Treos to connect directly to Microsoft Exchange 2003 e-mail servers. That feature is standard on the current Treo 650.

IDC analyst Kevin Burden said a move to offer a Windows Mobile-based Treo is somewhat expected, given that even PalmSource appears to be headed in new directions. PalmSource has recently been talking up a move to port the Palm OS to run on top of Linux, announcing a deal this week with MontaVista Software.

"They are becoming less beholden to the PalmOS themselves," Burden said. "If PalmSource itself doesn't have this unbreakable loyalty, why should Palm?"

Burden said that the technical aspects of adding Windows Mobile to the Treo are relatively straightforward. The bigger challenge, he said, is coming up with the resources to develop and support products for multiple operating systems.

Still, despite the costs, Burden said that Palm executives may feel they need to offer a Windows option, in case Microsoft strikes a nerve with its latest moves to improve wireless e-mail on mobile devices.

"I just don't think Palm wants to be left out of that," Burden said.

For Microsoft, such a deal would allow it to work its way onto the screens of one of its longest-standing competitors. It would also allow Redmond to showcase its latest operating system, Windows Mobile 5, on the Treo, which is one of the most popular smart-phone designs.

Although much of the operating system diversification speculation has centered on Windows Mobile, Brown also held out the possibility that Palm could work with other one-time rivals such as RIM or Symbian.

Whatever the operating systems at its core, any new generation of Treo is likely to add support for one of the upcoming "3G," or third-generation, cellular networks, such as Evolution Data Only or the Universal Mobile Telephone System.

"Over the next 12 months, the majority of devices in the higher-end price range are going to be 3G devices," Brown said. "I think that's what carriers want."

CNET's Michael Singer and Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

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