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Palm previews latest OS

At the PalmSource conference, developers peek at a test version of a new operating system designed to make handhelds more powerful and secure.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Palm on Tuesday showed developers a test version of a new operating system designed to make handhelds more powerful and secure, as well as better able to connect to wireless and corporate networks.

Although the final version won't be ready to ship to developers until the summer, Palm wants developers to start making sure their programs will work on version 5 of the Palm OS.

With the OS upgrade, Palm is moving to a new class of processors. Emulation software is designed to allow older programs to work in the new OS, but Palm estimates that only about 80 percent of programs will be compatible--the remainder will be shut out because of nonstandard programming techniques used by developers to make their programs run better on Palm's current chip, the relatively slow Dragonball processor from Motorola.

Upcoming processors are expected to have clock speeds anywhere from two to more than 10 times faster than the current top-of-the-line Dragonball, which runs at 33MHz.

The OS and chip moves are just part of many changes going on at Palm, which is looking to split itself into two units: one that makes handhelds, and another that develops and licenses the Palm operating system.

As previously reported, Palm has renamed the OS unit PalmSource. The company plans to formally announce the change Tuesday here at its developer conference of the same name.

The keynote address began at 1:00 p.m. PST Tuesday after a three-hour delay due to a power outage.

"Welcome to PalmSource...finally," joked David Nagel, CEO of Palm's operating system unit, as he kicked off the conference with his keynote speech.

Although Palm has been the market leader, analysts have been eagerly awaiting the move to a more modern chip architecture, as well as other features that Palm has promised for OS 5, including improved security, virtual private networking software, and support for 802.11b wireless networks.

Microsoft touted similar features last year when it released Pocket PC 2002, the latest version of its handheld operating system.

Although Palm is adding these features into the operating system, along with support for better screen resolution and audio playback and recording, it will be up to licensees to decide which features they want to include in their products.

Call to developers
One of the company's previous strengths has been the community of developers creating applications for the operating system. However, it remains unclear whether or not those developers have been able to generate revenue for themselves.

"Not nearly enough people who buy the devices are buying applications," Nagel said.

"If you can't make a living," he said, addressing the developers in the audience, "we can't make a living."

IDC analyst Kevin Burden said that the Palm OS "needs more licensees, and I think that we'll see an uptick in the number of developers brought onboard as a result of the OS subsidiary.

"The decisions of what (hardware) licensees to accept will be about how they can further the OS. Now they'll be (more) about increasing market share of the OS."

Sources say that PalmSource has several hardware licensees already lined up that it will introduce.

In all, Palm has been able to collect a community of developers that is about 200,000 strong.

On Tuesday, Palm licensee Motorola announced that it will work with game developer Sega to spur the creation of games for Palm OS-based handhelds. Motorola and Sega will work together to integrate Sega's gaming software into Motorola's line of new ARM-based Dragonball chips as well as its existing family of Dragonball chips. The new line is not among the Dragonball processors Palm plans to phase out over time. Motorola's Metrowerks subsidiary will make tools to help developers create games for the Palm OS.

The Sega software will be included with Motorola's Dragonball MX1 and Super VZ processors, which are shipping to device makers. Devices using the processors will be available as early as the fourth quarter.

The companies are also working to create games that would work with wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and the cellular networks.

Palm is not the only one trying to capture the minds of its developers.

As it did last year, Microsoft will be trying to recruit top Palm developers. At an event Tuesday night, about 50 developers will hear from the software giant. They'll walk away with Pocket PC software development tools as well as Compaq Computer iPaq handhelds equipped with Bluetooth short-range wireless technology.

Meanwhile, Nokia will be recruiting Palm developers for its Communicator device, which combines a cell phone with an organizer that uses an OS from Symbian. Nokia plans to announce a deal Tuesday with AppForge that will allow developers to write programs in Visual Basic that can then run on both Palm OS handhelds and Nokia's Communicator. AppForge already has tools that allow programs to be written in Visual Basic and then translated for both Palm OS and Pocket PC handhelds.

Keeping it tight
In its latest OS, Palm is taking a cue from Microsoft by adding support for themes--essentially a customized background, similar to the wallpaper feature on a PC. Microsoft supported themes in Pocket PC 2002.

The new OS will feature only a modest influence from Palm's acquisition of the assets of Be. Palm executives said future versions of the OS will use more Be technology, although Palm is not continuing development of the Be operating system.

Despite the changes, Palm executives say the goal is to keep the hallmarks of the Palm operating system, including its small size, ease of use, and long battery life.

"Our philosophy is to keep the OS tight and reliable," said Steve Sakoman, PalmSource chief product officer.