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Is the Palm OS missing the multimedia boat?

Sexy new mobile apps from Google, TiVo and others are debuting on operating systems that are more current than Palm's.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
5 min read
The Palm OS may be losing its mojo with software developers.

It's been two years since the release of the last major upgrade to the Palm operating system for mobile devices, not counting the upgrade that never appeared in public.

With a brand-new version of the pioneer mobile OS not expected to appear for at least another year, some larger developers of mobile applications are looking elsewhere when launching their new multimedia applications.

Windows Mobile and Symbian are emerging as the operating systems of choice as large companies bring multimedia applications down to phones and handhelds. PalmSource, the developer of the Palm OS, can still count on thousands of loyal developers to create applications for the platform, but companies like Sling Media, Google and TiVo have held back their initial support for the Palm OS in favor of Windows or Java-based applications despite Palm's heft in the U.S. market.

In 2005, Palm OS-based devices accounted for 31 percent of the U.S. market for converged devices that can do both voice and data, according to IDC. Windows Mobile-based converged devices captured about 10 percent of that market. However, Windows Mobile held 6 percent of the worldwide market, while Palm OS captured only 4 percent.

"The Palm OS was not optimized for video and multimedia. But it has a very strong following, and it's somewhat early to tell if Windows Mobile's support for multimedia is enough to entice traditional Palm users to jump ship," said Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "But they are going to have to continue evolving the Palm platform to be more multimedia-friendly" or risk such a defection, he said.

PalmSource's reliance on third parties to implement many multimedia features appears to be a factor behind the decisions of developers. But the Palm OS has also failed to keep up with the competition. New smart phones and wireless PDAs on fast networks such as Verizon's EV-DO network use Windows Mobile, and the Symbian operating system is very popular with European users of 3G networks.

As a result, some newer mobile applications that require bandwidth or Java support are not making their debut on Palm devices. Those companies eventually plan to support Palm, but they've launched their applications on other platforms.

Sling Media chose to support Windows Mobile when it extended the capabilities of the Slingbox to handheld devices, in part because the application requires a certain amount of network bandwidth to stream video, and there aren't any Palm OS devices available on fast networks such as Verizon's EV-DO network as of today, said Brian Jaquet, a Sling Media spokesman. Palm OS PDAs like the Tungsten E2 and TX have built-in Wi-Fi, but the Treos lack that feature.

"Windows Mobile has a lot of momentum, with the 3G compatibility and devices that have both 3G and Wi-Fi," Jaquet said. In addition, Sling Media was already working very closely with Microsoft in developing its applications for Windows PCs, so it was already familiar with the Windows Media Player, he said.

Google chose to develop its Google Maps for Mobile application in Java so it could run on as many devices as possible, said Deep Nishar, director of product management for Google. But Palm OS doesn't come with a Java virtual machine; users who want to run Java applications have to download IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Micro Environment from Palm's site and install it on their devices.

The installation process isn't easy for the average user, and the end result isn't as stable as JVMs that were built into other phones, according to Nishar and several posts on a Google newsgroup discussing the topic. As a result, Google doesn't officially support Palm OS for Maps for Mobile.

TiVo wanted to focus on a more widely used portable device--the laptop PC--when it was developing the TiVo To Go service, said Jim Denney, vice president of product marketing at TiVo. When it came time to allow portable-device users to download TiVo content onto their handhelds, it opted to support the Portable Media Center devices, which use Windows Mobile.

PalmSource has floundered since it separated from Palm in 2003, failing to land even a single customer for Palm OS Cobalt, its first major effort designed for smart phones.

Cobalt, or Palm OS version 6, was introduced in 2004 along with Garnet, the current version of the Palm OS used in devices like the Treo 650. But Cobalt has never been released in a smart phone due either to its bloated code base or Palm's reluctance to pay licensing fees, depending on the message board or analyst doing the talking.

Palm declined to comment for this story, but it is clearly hedging its bets on the future of the Palm OS with its decision to release a Treo using Windows Mobile.

"They've been stuck at (Palm OS Garnet) for two-plus years. It's a pretty ancient operating system that can't handle multitasking, can't handle protected memory, and doesn't have great security, all the things that Cobalt was supposed to deliver," Gartner analyst Todd Kort said. Protected memory helps prevent applications from crashing the entire device, and Cobalt was supposed to have built-in support for authentication frameworks that would allow VPN (virtual private network) connections.

Business customers have been the initial users of Palm OS Treos, which means carriers and application developers have focused on creating applications for them, said Albert Chu, vice president of business development at PalmSource.

PalmSource relies on its partners to bring multimedia applications to the Palm OS, said Larry Berkin, senior director of developer marketing. This means that Palm OS doesn't natively support the types of digital-rights management software that content providers insist on for mobile media. Third-party developers such as NormSoft are the ones tasked with coming up with software that can decode Microsoft's DRM, while Microsoft's Windows Mobile, of course, can read those files out of the box.

MobiTV is one new developer that embraced the Palm OS last December before heading down the Windows Mobile path earlier this month at CTIA. MobiTV's service streams live television to handhelds.

As for future Palm OS development, Palm and software developers are awaiting the first products to emerge from Access, which bought PalmSource in 2005 and currently operates it as a wholly owned subsidiary. Access and PalmSource have announced plans to shift the Palm OS to a Linux kernel by next year.

The Access Linux Platform will be more of a mainstream operating system, with features that will appeal to consumers and multimedia fans, Chu said. A software developer kit for ALP is not expected to arrive until later this year, and the operating system probably won't appear on devices until early 2007 at best.

Until then, Palm is stuck with Palm OS Garnet. The lack of new features hasn't hurt sales of Treos, Kort said, and companies like TiVo and Sling Media said they have Palm OS versions of their applications on their road maps. Palm has promised to continue releasing PDAs and Treos based on the Palm OS while also releasing new Windows Mobile devices.

"People will keep using (Palm OS Garnet). For the average user, who doesn't use more than 20 percent of their device, they don't know the difference," Kort said. But other users looking to run applications like Google's Maps for Mobile either have to go through a tricky installation process, or wait for official support.