Palm reaches out to developers

The handheld maker introduces new programs for developers as more third-party software makers are testing the waters of Pocket PC, the rival OS from Microsoft.

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
5 min read
In an effort to keep a grip on its developers and attract new ones, Palm announced on Tuesday new programs designed to encourage the creation of third-party software for its operating system.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based handheld maker said the programs are meant to aid developers as they create applications for Palm's OS and give consumers another reason to buy Palm OS-based handhelds.

The basic program, which is free, offers developers core services such as software development kits, product images, limited access to source code, and access to prerelease tools and information.

The advanced plan, which costs $495 per year, offers direct technical support, a quarterly CD with the latest development tools and technology, and help with marketing.

Palm also introduced a certification program that bestows professional developer credentials to those who pass an exam covering a range of programming skills. The handheld maker will offer an online training program to try to attract new developers for the Palm OS.

The introduction of Palm's new programs comes as more developers are testing the waters of Pocket PC, the rival operating system from Microsoft.

In the technology industry, a hardware device is only as good as its operating system--and one measure of an OS is the applications that support it. Palm has touted its large developer community for some time as one of its key differentiators from Pocket PC. According to Palm, there are more than 175,000 registered developers of the Palm OS and more than 12,000 commercially available applications.

Keeping those developers devoted to Palm will be important as the OS group becomes a separate subsidiary of the company later this year. Developers tend to be a fanatically devoted group, but that fidelity is being tempered by their need to survive and grow.

"It was more of a religious passion early on. Now it's more of a business decision," Handango CEO Laura Rippy said of developers' attitudes. Hurst, Texas-based Handango sells software for handhelds and wireless devices. The company has always developed applications for both Palm and Pocket PC but used to focus mostly on the Palm OS.

Meta Group says the growth in the number of Pocket PC makers can enable businesses to play one off another to get the best deals when planning to issue PDAs to their users.

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As the market for handheld software has matured, Rippy said, she has witnessed more "crossover development" in which developers create applications for multiple operating systems.

Gabriel Acosta-Lopez, a director of developer services at Palm, isn't surprised by Rippy's observation.

"I don't think developers are abandoning the Palm OS. I don't think they realize the opportunity cost--whatever time you spend developing for Pocket PC, you lose in developing for the platform that already has a big installed base," Acosta-Lopez said.

Palm has held onto its No. 1 market share for handheld operating systems, but the company is starting to feel the heat from Pocket PC, which was recently updated to include more business-oriented features such as software for wireless networking and security.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been actively recruiting Palm developers to create applications for its own platform.

"We want to give developers another avenue to create for and gain market and mind share," said Ed Suwanjindar, a Microsoft Pocket PC product manager.

Microsoft will also release a test version of a new software development kit in the next few weeks and will include an emulator, allowing developers to test handheld applications on a PC.

Developers say their decision to work with both operating systems is simply a response to market conditions.

Vindigo, which makes a popular electronic city-guide application, rode the coattails of the Palm OS early on. But the company recently announced a version of its software for Pocket PC-based devices. This version will be bundled with Hewlett-Packard's new Jornada handhelds that go on sale at the end of the month.

"We've always regarded ourselves as operating system independent," Vindigo CEO Jason Devitt said. "We chose Palm first because of its installed base and because the Microsoft devices weren't selling well and the OS was clumsy and slow. But recently, with Pocket PC 2002, the hardware and OS have improved by leaps and bounds."

Devitt said his company has received about 5,000 requests for its software to be adapted for handhelds using Pocket PC.

Clay Thompson, the sole employee of Creative Creek Software, has been a developer for the Palm OS since 1998 but is creating a version of his advanced calculator software for Pocket PC.

"I'm still totally committed to Palm, but a lot of customers have switched (to devices using the Pocket PC) and have requested that I develop a version for Pocket PC."

Thompson added that the Pocket PC was "horrible a couple years ago, but it's been getting better, especially the screen (resolution on Pocket PC-based devices), which is what I think most people are switching for."

John Robotham, president of Zframe, a company that develops wireless browsing applications for handhelds, noted that both the Palm OS and Pocket PC have their challenges and benefits.

"With Palm, the OS and interface are more simple (for consumers to use), but require more engineering work," he said. "Meanwhile, Pocket PC facilitates more features but pushes you in a specific direction. And if you're not headed in that direction, there can be more work involved."

Handango's Rippy described the handheld market as reminiscent of the razor blade business.

"Razors are getting cheaper, so consumers are spending more on the blades," she said, relating this to the ongoing price war in the handheld hardware market and the increased spending on software.

Rippy said that in dealing with developers, she has found they generally consider several items: the installed base of devices using an operating system and the potential for growth; the propensity for those consumers to buy applications for that operating system; and whether there already is a similar application for that operating system.

IDC analyst Kevin Burden agreed. "Developers develop for Palm because of its installed base," he said. "But at the same time the growth potential, especially in the enterprise market, makes Pocket PC appealing...Developers are always looking for growth and think that it's wherever they aren't."