Palm OS 6: the Evolution

The handheld computer maker's software spin-off is looking at releasing the newest operating version this year, which should ruffle just as many feathers as OS 5 did.

SAN MATEO, Calif. -- Palm's next generation operating system will be just as radical and just as controversial as its current OS.

The parent company's Milpitas, Calif.-based spin-off software division PalmSource said this week that Palm OS 6.0 is expected by the end of the year with products shipping as early as 2004.

"OS 6 is the evolutionary path to the future," PalmSouce CEO David Nagel said during his keynote to attendees here.

The company said it could not discuss specific details of the developing platform but did say it will focus on wireless as well as security for data transfers. PalmSource briefed developers Wednesday on some of the software's advanced features during the three-day conference, but not to the press.

"We are working on enhanced management of wireless connections, richer security, and flexible input methods. A lot of that shows up in Palm OS 6," Palm Chief Competitive Officer Michael Mace told

According to reports at the Register, the new OS will also have granular, application-level security and pluggable I/O interfaces. That would let licensees remove a Graffiti input mechanism for an alternative, such as biometrics. PalmSource is also apparently working on tweaking OS 6 to make it Microsoft .NET compatible.

"We'll interoperate with .Net servers and software as much as we can, but parts of .Net are very proprietary to Microsoft and are not open," Mace said.

The new OS will be the first in the company's history to take full advantage of the Be Inc. development team, which Palm acquired in 2001. The platform is expected to continue along the ARM-based architecture, similar to Palm OS 5.0. Currently, PalmSource licenses version 5.2.1, which runs the new Zire 71 and Tungsten C.

The new operating system is also expected to accommodate very different form-factors, which is indicative of two partnerships the company announced this week: New Zealand-based Aceeca, which makes industrial sensor equipment and Mountain View, Calif.-based startup Tapwave, which launched its Palm-powered Helix game console this week.

"Would we put our operating system in refrigerators? Sure if someone would like to spend the money on that license, but we don't see that happening soon," Mace said.

Mace said he'd like for Palm OS 6 to work more on making applications run better around the world. Palm has recently been targeting China and the Pacific rim, but the company sells a great number of its devices in India. Mace said regional language support has been an obstacle.

But the bigger trouble for PalmSource may be that it may have to fight Palm Solutions (Palm Inc.'s hardware group) for some of the code considering PalmSource owns the rights to version 5.0 of the operating system.

"It's a question of focus," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "OS 5 is basically OS 4 running ARM-based architecture. The fact is that Palm Solutions will not get a free ride."

And in similar fashion to last year's Palm OS 5 fiasco developers may have to work around delayed schedules as PalmSource finalizes its partners. PalmSource originally estimated its testing versions of OS 6 would be ready by mid-2003.

Palm Inc.'s decision to delay the separation of hardware and software may be to blame. The company blamed the move on "weak economic fundamentals."

Another area that may be holding up the OS 6 release is Palm's attempt to tap into the open source community. In an exclusive interview with Nagel, he opened up the possibility of sharing some of the PalmSource's code to the outside world beyond its partners.

As for licensees, there does not seem to be a shortage of them. PalmSource boasts a developer base of 260,000 and growing. The usual suspects like Sony, Handspring, Acer, Kyocera and Samsung are all expected to climb onboard as soon as the new OS is ready.

According to Palm Inc.'s own charts of the markets it is targeting, the next multi-function handheld device it might build will incorporate the best of both the Tungsten C and the Zire 71 -- Wi-Fi connectivity with a camera, but don't expect it before the end of the year.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Palm Solutions as the owner of the Palm OS license.

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