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December 20, 2006updated 19 Aug 2016 10:08am

Why Palm still covets Palm OS

In an unsurprising but symbolically important move, handheld and smartphone maker Palm this month signed a perpetual license with Access Systems Americas, which gives Palm the right to use Access’ Palm OS operating system in whole or in part in any

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In an unsurprising but symbolically important move, handheld and smartphone maker Palm this month signed a perpetual license with Access Systems Americas, which gives Palm the right to use Access’ Palm OS operating system in whole or in part in any Palm device forever more. It sounds like a no-brainer, but the context is interesting, in particular what it means for the army of Palm OS developers out there. Believe it or not there are at least 160,000 Palm OS developers — and they’re just the ones that Palm knows about.

It’s costing Palm $44m, to be paid in Palm’s third quarter of fiscal year 2007, and will be recognized as an expense over the next several years. But the firm noted that this single payment eliminates the requirement for it to pay Access continuing royalties of “tens of millions of dollars” over the coming years.

Apart from anything else, now is a good time for the firm to be saving a little money. Its latest quarter’s results just out were disappointing, with revenue down for the first time in more than three years — dropping almost 12% to $392.9m (more on the main reason for that later). Profits were down too, and investors sent shares tumbling to a new 52-week low on Nasdaq on the news. Its stock has recovered slightly since.

But back to Palm OS: The reason that the decision is not wholly unexpected is that although some questioned whether Palm would eventually abandon the use of Palm OS in its devices in favour of Windows Mobile — which it also supports on some devices – it’s become increasingly clear that Palm sees the ability to innovate at the both the operating system and device level as critical to its ability to differentiate itself from its rivals. Clearly RIM is the biggest threat here (and by the way RIM owns its own Java-based operating system; you can read all about that and why their CEO told me they won’t support Windows in my previous blog here), but there are numerous other smart phone makers it must compete with too.

Indeed as CBR exclusively reported back in October 2005, Palm’s CEO Ed Colligan would have been unlikely to take the decision to spin off Palm OS, formerly part of Palm itself, to Access Systems Americas in the first place had he been in charge at the time. That was a decision taken by former Palm management.

Colligan told me in an interview back then that he would “probably not” have spun off Palm’s operating system arm, at that time known as PalmSource, had it been up to him.

The question for a mobile device maker like Palm is whether it is able to build more innovative, differentiated devices if it can control, integrate, and manipulate the operating system as well as just the user interface and application layers. From the time Palm has not owned Palm OS, its ability to do that going forward has been in some doubt.

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In any case, Colligan has clearly been influential in not only securing the rights to continue to use and customize Palm OS to suit its own purposes, but also to remove any sneaking suspicions that all that could crumble away if Access chose not to renew their annual license arrangements.

With a perpetual license now signed, the army of Palm OS developers out there writing applications to run on that operating system can rest assured that their applications will still have a destination platform – namely Palm OS on Palm devices – for many years to come.

The license covers the source code for Palm OS Garnet, the version of the Palm OS used in several of Palm’s Treo smartphone models and all Palm handheld computers. Under the agreement, Palm now has a perpetual license to use as well as to innovate on the Palm OS Garnet code base.

Palm will retain ownership rights in its innovations, which is also important as an alternative could have been that innovations were passed back into the code base for other Palm OS licensees to take advantage of. But Palm also made it clear that it intends to ensure that, as it put it, “applications now compatible with Palm OS Garnet will operate with little or no modification in future Palm products that employ Palm OS Garnet as the company evolves it over time.”

The new agreement provides Palm flexibility to use Palm OS Garnet in whole or in part in any Palm product, and together with any other system technologies. In addition, Palm has secured an expansion of its existing patent license from Access to cover all current and future Palm products, regardless of the underlying operating system – in other words Access will not claim patent infringement even if the device in question is one of Palm’s models that run Windows Mobile.

“This agreement gives Palm increased ability to innovate on the Palm OS Garnet base, and to effectively differentiate Palm products long into the future,” said Mark Bercow, senior vice president of business development at Palm. “We value the Palm OS development community, and are very committed to our loyal base of Palm OS customers, all of whom will benefit from the agreement just concluded with Access.”

The company stressed that although it will continue to enhance Palm OS, it will also, “continue to support and further innovate on its implementation of Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PC Edition”.

When it introduced the Windows Mobile support, Palm’s Colligan told me the reason was partly to give customers choice, partly because some of its carrier partners did not want devices based on Palm OS, and partly because some enterprises it wants to sell to have a “Microsoft only” attitude.

Though Palm has been on an upward trajectory since Colligan took the reins, it acknowledged last month that a delay in certification of its latest Treo smartphone would push current-quarter earnings below previous estimates. Specifically that was its Treo 750 for the US market, which will now begin shipping early in the third quarter of 2007. Colligan noted its Treo 750v launch in Europe was “doing quite well, and we expect international revenue for [the current quarter] to be strong.” But alas overall sales and profits were both well down.

Colligan surely hopes that now that the perpetual license deal is signed, the firm can concentrate on innovating at the operating system (for its Palm OS devices, at least), device and application levels in order to get itself back on a more level footing with RIM and its other rivals.

It’s not going to be easy, but perhaps it is with that ‘whole-stack’ approach that Palm has the best chance of success — after all, it was the combination of Palm’s hardware, applications and Palm OS that made the Palm Pilot so successful, and it might just be able to pull off a similar coup in the future if it puts its mind to it: just ask Steve Jobs.

[Have I told you about my colleague and CBR deputy editor Matthew Aslett’s excellent dedicated open source blog here, including the Linux year in quotes, or his CBR magazine article ‘Linux in Crisis?’ here? Trust me they’re worth a look.]

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