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Palm adds muscle with ARM

The move to ARM-based chips will make the Palm more than just a pretty face, according to analysts.

Palm hopes that incorporating ARM technology into its handhelds will help extend its reach.

As expected, Palm announced on Tuesday the next step in its plan to move to an entirely new chip architecture using the ARM core that powers rival handhelds running Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, as well as many cell phones.

Specifically, Palm will work with chipmakers Intel, Texas Instruments and Motorola to help them create chips that are optimized for the Palm operating system. All three chipmakers will offer products that contain a processor core licensed from England's ARM Holdings. Palm first announced plans to transition to ARM in April 2000.

Palm has not publicly said which chipmaker it will use for its own handhelds, but Tuesday's announcement will pave the way for Palm and its licensees to use chips from any of the three chipmakers. Today, all handhelds that use the Palm operating system--including those from Handspring and Sony--run on Motorola's Dragonball chips. ARM-based chips run significantly faster than the 33MHz Dragonball chips and thus can handle more complex applications.

MicroDesign Resources analyst Peter Glaskowsky said that enabling the Palm OS to run on more powerful chips will remove a key hurdle faced by developers.

"An inordinate amount of work has to be done in order to optimize an application for the processing power of current-generation (Palm) devices," Glaskowsky said. "Now the handcuffs are essentially removed."

Palm spokeswoman Ronni Sarmanian added that the switch to ARM adds the prospect of attracting new types of developers to Palm.

"ARM is the architecture of choice for wireless. There will be all kinds of new devices and applications," Sarmanian said.

Under the deal, she said, each of the chipmakers will create a kind of "glue layer" that allows the Palm operating system to work well with their chips.

The move, she said, will free up Palm licensees to come up with more products, more quickly.

Glaskowsky added that the switch will give Palm more ammunition to market its products.

In the past, he said, Palm had to focus on elegance and simplicity, rather than on the power of its devices. "Now, with these upcoming processors, they don't have to compromise those features to add higher performance."

Each of three chipmakers is already touting its advantages over its competitors.

An Intel representative noted that many of the recent entrants into the handheld market, including NEC and Toshiba, have chosen Intel chips.

TI pointed to its commanding share of the cell phone market and said its chip architecture is well-suited to devices that combine organizer functions with cell phone features and digital audio or video playback.

"We are very good at low-power computing," said Bob Carl, a marketing manager for TI's wireless device business.

Meanwhile, Motorola is trying to preserve its role as the incumbent.

"The other big value that Motorola brings is our entire suite of wireless expertise," Motorola marketing manager Roy Druian said. "Motorola as a company is well known for our cellular expertise."

Still, it appears too soon to announce which handheld maker will use which chipmaker, because Palm's actual transition to ARM-based chips is not expected until at least sometime next year. Sarmanian would not say when consumers might see products that take advantage of the new deal.

However, she said Palm is likely to hand out new tools for creating applications for ARM-based handhelds at its developer forum this fall. Last December, Palm demonstrated a prototype circuit board running the Palm OS using an ARM-based chip.

Palm is not alone in working with chipmakers to generate momentum for an operating system. Microsoft is giving chipmakers a sneak peek at the next version of Windows CE, code-named Talisker, to let them suggest ways to optimize the operating system for their chips.