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Software takes Palm programs to Pocket PC

A Swedish programmer says he is testing a program that allows the Palm operating system to run on handhelds that use the rival Pocket PC OS.

    When is a Palm not a Palm? When the Palm operating system runs on Pocket PC devices.

    Swedish programmer George Andre says he is testing software that allows the Palm operating system--and the thousands of programs created for it--to run on handhelds that already use Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system. At this point, Andre said, the program can emulate Palm handhelds through the Palm III and runs at about 70 percent of the speed of such a device.

    He plans to start selling the software this fall for around $30, although those who want to run the program will still need access to a Palm device to transfer the contents of its read-only memory (ROM) onto a handheld with Pocket PC, such as Compaq Computer's iPaq or Hewlett-Packard's Jornada.

    Andre said Palm might try to stop him from selling his program. But if the company does, he said, he doesn't believe it can succeed.

    "Legally I'm doing everything correctly," he said. "Of course, they will not be happy."

    Palm spokeswoman Ronni Sarmanian downplayed the significance of Andre's software, saying there have been other Palm emulators for earlier versions of Windows CE, the core of the Pocket PC operating system. Palm itself provides its developers with the source code for an emulator that allows Palm programs to run and be tested on a desktop computer.

    Sarmanian noted that it's a "trivial" task to create an emulator for another operating system. However, she said, there are drawbacks that make an emulator unattractive.

    "There is a huge performance and memory overhead" associated with emulators, Sarmanian said. "That said, I can understand why people using Pocket PC would want to run Palm, because we have all the great apps."

    A Microsoft spokeswoman rebuffed the notion that Pocket PC owners want to run Palm programs, saying it is the equivalent of putting a "Yugo engine in a BMW."

    "It's technically possible to emulate the Palm OS on a Pocket PC--although not vice versa--but why would you want to?" she said. "You'd turn the Pocket PC from a powerful computing device with office connectivity, music, Web browsing and more into what basically amounts to a DayTimer."

    George Andre's Palm emulator in action

    Andre took issue with the criticism from Microsoft and Palm, suggesting that his program is ideal for people that want to use a Pocket PC but still have some Palm programs they want to run.

    "The question is not why would you use a Palm emulator, it's 'Why not?' " Andre said. "You will be able to run the Palm emulator and still use the superior capabilities of PocketPC platform. You will be having the best of two worlds."

    And while there have been other emulators, Andre said his will be the first that runs at a usable speed.

    For those who want to use such an emulator, however, hurdles remain.

    Such programs require a copy of the Palm ROM. It is illegal for anyone but Palm to sell a copy of that code, Sarmanian said. Palm owners could merely transfer a copy of their own Palm's ROM to a Pocket PC-based device, although that is not something the average handheld owner is likely to do.

    Emulators have often been a thorny legal area. In March, Sony and Connectix settled a bitter two-year legal fight over Connectix's Virtual Game Station, which allowed games designed for the PlayStation console to run on a Macintosh or Windows-based computer.

    Connectix has another emulator program, Virtual PC, that is rather well-accepted to run PC software on a Macintosh. That has run into fewer issues because it requires a copy of Microsoft's operating system, whereas the Virtual Game Station bypassed Sony's console entirely.

    Andre said he started working on the Palm program in mid-May after the idea generated tons of response at the handheld enthusiast site Brighthand.

    "People were just saying, 'Do it, do it,'" he said. "I just started doing it."

    Andre said there is still work to be done to improve the performance of the emulator.

    "Right now, compared to Palm III, I would say it is 70 percent of that speed," he said. "It's only an alpha version. There are a lot of optimizations to make."

    Andre also wants to work on other finishing touches before the final release, such as allowing devices running the emulator to sync directly to Palm's PC software using the Pocket PC's cable. In addition, the current version emulates only the original Dragonball processor, not the later Dragonball EZ or VZ chips on some of the latest Palm handhelds.

    IDC analyst Kevin Burden said an emulator such as Andre's is likely a niche product.

    "I think it's for enthusiasts," he said. "I don't think there is a really wide market for this."

    Still, Burden said, such an approach is potentially of interest to large companies that are forced to support both devices.

    "Do IT departments want to carry around a Pocket PC and a Palm device? No."