Culture

Will Palm developers succumb to Microsoft's wooing?

Despite the software giant's full-court press, it's unclear whether the company can convince large numbers of Palm developers to translate their software to the Pocket PC OS.

Despite Microsoft's full-court press, it's unclear whether the company can convince large numbers of Palm developers to translate their software to the Pocket PC operating system.

In the middle of Palm's developers conference in Silicon Valley this week, Microsoft hosted a dinner aimed at persuading programmers to port their applications to Microsoft's OS for handhelds. Leading the charge is Lenn Pryor, a Microsoft developer-relations executive brought in four months ago to boost Pocket PC's programmer base.

Recruiting more software developers is critical for Microsoft to attract a significant share of new handheld sales. Several of the 30 developers who attended Wednesday's dinner in Palo Alto said they left with a better sense of Microsoft's goals but remain uncertain whether to go ahead with software for the Pocket PC.

"I still haven't made up my mind which way I'll go," said Robert Schiros, vice president of IS/Complete, a New Jersey-based developer of encryption software and of programs for "beaming" documents using the Palm's infrared port.

Schiros and other Palm developers, who spoke off the record, said they have several concerns about porting their applications to Pocket PC.

One is the fact that Pocket PC handhelds still make up only a small fraction of the market, compared with Palm's clear majority. Like executives from other small companies that have built a business around the Palm, Schiros questions whether IS/Complete and its 20 developers have the resources to program for and support another device.

On one hand, seeing a giant like Microsoft continue to pour resources into the handheld market makes the company difficult to ignore. On the other hand, many developers fear that if they start working on Pocket PC applications, Microsoft eventually will trample them by taking their ideas and making them a standard feature of the OS.

Pryor said Microsoft is sensitive to the concerns of Palm developers and wants to let companies know where Microsoft is heading, so they can create programs that remain complementary to Microsoft's product. Such is the job given to "developer evangelists," Microsoft workers who meet one-on-one with programmers at events like this week's dinner. Only a handful of workers are assigned to that task, Pryor said, although the number is growing.

"We're not building an army," Pryor pledged. "It's not an aggressive or uncomfortable type of evangelism. It's more finding out what they are up to."

Microsoft also wants to let developers know about what it sees as its advantages, such as a more powerful OS built to run on faster chips. Pryor noted that many of the features Palm developers are hoping for in future generations of that OS are already available on the Pocket PC.

To sweeten the pot, Microsoft is offering to help smaller companies market their software. The software giant also has a fund to spur development of programs for large corporations. Still, Microsoft said it does not plan to just throw cash at developers to get support.

"We're really not going out there to play venture capitalist or buy people's loyalty," Pryor said.

Michael Mace, the Palm executive whose job it is to keep an eye on Microsoft, said he doubts Microsoft can buy the market, even if it wants to.

"It's not about 20 developers; it's about 130,000," Mace said. "They can't pay all of them."

Pryor would not say how many developers are working on Pocket PC programs, but noted that about 60,000 software toolkits have been downloaded in the past three to four months, compared with the 5,000 or so that were downloaded for the previous generation of the Pocket PC.

Pryor also stressed he is not trying to get developers to abandon Palm entirely.

"I never go to a developer and say stop doing what you're doing," Pryor said. "The pitch is the handheld space is a growing space. We've moved quite a few Pocket PCs, and this is an opportunity to grow your market."