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Growing Palm show reflects handheld's grip

Once a forum for discussing the latest in free games and utilities for the popular PalmPilot, the PalmSource event has skyrocketed in attendance and now underscores Palm's growing ambitions.

The Palm Computing developers conference, running next week in Santa Clara, California, has grown up a lot since last year's event.

Once a forum for discussing the latest in free games and utilities for the popular PalmPilot handheld, the PalmSource event has skyrocketed in attendance and now reflects Palm Computing's attempts to build an entire industry around its handheld operating system and applications.

The event will also be an opportunity to smooth ruffled software developer feathers. Some of those developers have been irked by competition from Palm in some peripheral markets.

The week-long conference will showcase new Palm licensees such as TRG, Handspring, and Nokia, as well as companies launching content for the newly available Palm VII and its Palm.net wireless service. Game developers now will share trade-show floor space with serious-minded enterprise software firms such as Oracle and wireless network providers such as Bell South.

The shift in focus reflects Palm's recognition of the growing emphasis on handheld devices as a way to connect to the Net without wires. Although the market for personal organizers may be limited, Palm's thinking goes, the possibilities for licensing its popular interface for cell phone and wireless applications are much wider.

"Hardware can take you only so far," said Gabriel Acosta-Lopez, director of platform development at Palm, noting that attendance at the conference is up 60 percent this year, while the number of exhibitors is up 300 percent this year compared to last. "This is a major stepping stone for how the platform is going."

As a result, this year's PalmSource show will emphasize so-called enterprise applications targeted at large businesses and corporate purchasing departments. TRG, for example, will unveil its TRGpro on Monday. Based on the design of the Palm IIIx, the TRGpro will feature a CompactFlash slot to upgrade the device for specific business uses.

Speakers like Eric Benhamou, CEO of Palm Computing's parent company 3Com, Palm president Alan Kessler, and Cisco Systems chairman John Chambers will touch on business applications and opportunities for Palm developers during keynote addresses.

Palm's new emphasis on wireless capabilities and applications "is a wake-up call to developers. This changes the players and the playing rules--it's not about developing little games or utilities," said Will Nelson, editor of PDA Dash, which will be announcing its relaunch as Smaller.com at the show.

That is not to say that consumer-oriented developers and licensees will not be in attendance. Jeff Hawkins, co-founder of Palm Computing and now a licensee of the Palm Platform through his Handspring venture, will give a keynote address. Handspring will also show off its new Visor device at the show.

"It's also about a totally different user--not the hardcore fanatic Palm user. You want the person who bought their device at Cell One," Nelson said. "That's the market you want to think about."

The event will also provide an opportunity to mend fences with developers irritated by Palm's competition in certain markets, Acosta-Lopez conceded. The company's development community has grown at an almost unmanageable pace over the last year, with the company adding 830 developers just last week, he said.

"There are going to be areas where we invite developers to play and areas where we compete with developers," he said. "We're growing, we're going to make mistakes, but we're always looking to improve ourselves."

For example, Palm will be handing out pre-release versions of the next Palm operating system to developers, he said. "So they can start updating their solutions immediately. "