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Operating Systems

Can Linux save the Palm OS?

The next version of the Palm operating system will be based on Linux, as Access attempts to keep the pioneering software alive.

Access is betting that the Palm community could use a little push from a penguin.

More than two years have passed since PalmSource--the Palm OS developer purchased by Access in 2005--released an update to the venerable operating system. But the next version, which is set for release next year, will be very different under the hood, according to Access executives Tomihisa Kamada and Didier Diaz.

The Access Linux Platform will still be able to run Palm OS applications, but Tokyo-based Access will use an open-source underpinning as its foundation. The mobile software maker asserts that this will make it easier and cheaper to get the update out to developers, who will likewise find it easier to take advantage of a wealth of open-source code to create Access Linux Platform applications.

Still, the operating system's historic leadership in handheld computers is no longer a given. Microsoft has made huge strides in the two years that the Palm OS has languished, convincing even PalmSource's former partner-in-crime Palm to put Windows Mobile onto a Treo smart phone.

At the recent LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco, CNET sat down with Kamada, who is Access' chief technology officer, and Diaz, who is vice president for product marketing. They discussed the Access Linux Platform and the future of the Palm community. An edited transcript follows.

Q: Where do things stand right now with the Access Linux Platform?
Diaz: What we set out to do is start from Linux and create a complete, commercial-grade mobile platform. Linux is considered to be the third platform in the mobile industry. Companies such as Orange have said that moving forward they would support all the three main multitasking operating systems--Windows, Symbian and Linux.

When you try to build a mobile platform from Linux components, you find that you have to optimize some of them. Whether it would be for footprint or performance, you actually have to replace entire components sometimes or create components that do not exist at all. In addition, we are adding some key frameworks or subsystems that are the open source area, so things such as telephony framework and messaging framework.

Kamada: Let's say only 20 percent of the system can be covered by open source. We develop all the remaining portions.

How much of the Access Linux Platform will bring Palm OS components forward?
Diaz: A big portion, actually. We are including a version of Garnet (Palm OS v5.4, the most current version) emulated. The approach is there is an abstraction layer that had been designed for Garnet to sit on various types of hardware, and we are now connecting this abstraction layer to Linux. So we are very much similar to Java; we are creating a virtual machine of Garnet inside the Access Linux Platform.

What will that do for the performance of Palm OS applications on the Access Linux Platform?
Diaz: We believe the performance will be good. Mostly it will be driven by the new processors that are available.

Well, it's still going to be emulated.
Diaz: It typically gives you software overhead. However, the bulk--if not all, actually--of all the commercial applications available for Palm were written for the 68K (processor, an old Motorola chip). Now you run (those applications) on an ARM processor.

It's a different style of emulation. It's a different approach to emulation. One of the things we are doing during LinuxWorld is to let Palm OS developers come and try their applications on our emulator. I really don't think performance will be an issue.

Why Linux? Why choose to go forward with Linux as the underpinning for this operating system?
Diaz: It's been quite a journey. When we announced Palm OS for Linux last year, I would say our goals were to a large extent self-serving. What we wanted was not to have to create our own kernel anymore. Why do this? The kernel doesn't differentiate you a great deal. Why spend our engineering resources on that?

Also from an industry perspective, at the time moving to Linux especially at the kernel level allowed us to leverage all these drivers that are written by the silicon vendors as they bring up their systems.

So to begin with, I would say it was a technical reason. What we found, though, as we said "Palm OS is going to be based on Linux" is that the market came to us saying, "Hey, if you are doing this, we would like to work with you."

Kamada: Mobile phone requirements, especially for 3G, are very complicated. So we do features, such as you can check e-mail, (browse) and (at the same time) receive the phone call. Multitasking is a very essential requirement today. There are not so many choices for multitasking operating systems today--Microsoft, Symbian and Linux. It doesn't make sense to develop a new operating system, a multitasking operating system, from scratch. So Linux is a very natural choice for us.

What would have it entailed in order to bring the Palm OS into a multitasking type of product?
Kamada: Palm OS version 5 is a kind of pseudo-multitasking.

Diaz: You have the polite multitasking where the application asks, and you have the multitasking where the applications can just do what they want and the operating system rules it. I think the Palm OS 5 is more of the earlier kind of multitasking.

So to bring it to a true multitasking, what would that involve?
Diaz: Well, there is more than multitasking; it?'s the entire operating system. It goes back to our technology reasons: Why would we create things that are already there? We just wrote a white paper explaining everything we had to do to really make Linux mobile. And if you look?all these components come from open source, but there are many of them that had to be written from scratch. And even those that had come from open source--in many cases, we had to do a lot of optimization. It would be a sizably larger effort to build something from scratch than to start from Linux.

Is the idea with the Access Linux Platform to bring the same sort of philosophy forward from Palm OS, meaning the heavy reliance on third-party application developers to bring a lot of functionality to the table?
Diaz: Absolutely, I mean that's our strength. That's what we know how to do. If you look at the mobile space today, it's sprouting new applications. I started my career in the PC space and now applications tend to be the same. I mean, I don't think we are at the point where we see big revolutions, but the mobile space is still in a stage where things move very fast.