This spring, at the PalmSource Developer's Conference Silicon Valley, PalmOS devotees, evangelists, and propellerheads converged at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose. The biggest handheld schmoosefest of the year, it's also the place for the world to learn the latest happenings at PalmSource and where the platform will be headed for the next twelve months.
INTRODUCING PALMOS 6
This year, PalmSource announced (surprise!) yet another version of PalmOS, debuting on devices later this year. This new version--supplanting PalmOS 5 from two or so years ago--promises new graphics capabilities and
hardware security features for next generation handhelds and smart phones.
Sensing that the former numbering scheme was just too straightforward and clear to be any good, however, marketing folk have branded PalmOS 6 with the moniker "Cobalt" (known at the show as "Cobol... no what was it again? oh yeah, Cobalt"). The-Version-Formerly-Known-as-PalmOS-5 now has a new name too. It shall from now on be known as "PalmOS Garnet", or so they say. We honestly think they, like Prince, should have considered using memorable symbols instead of the new names. Here's an idea for two symbols that might be more memorable and less confusing: "5" and "6".
The new operating system is actually a full rewrite from the ground up, incorporating technology and expertise from PalmSource's acquisition of Be Inc. in 2001. This radical move adds additional multithreading, security and stability features to PalmOS, creating a device platform specifically-tailored to meet the concerns of cell phone manufacturers.
This is largely good news, for it puts PalmOS on strong ground for taking its share of the growing SmartPhone market. Indeed, it is likely to avoid a repeat of some of the costly and embarrassing losses Microsoft suffered recently when manufacturers cancelled PocketPC-based SmartPhones, some citing stability and source code access concerns.
Of course, if PalmOS is a strong platform, then we all, as users, developers, and fans benefit as well. But does that necessarily mean that we should all rush out and get PalmOS Cobalt devices when they come out? Er... not necessarily. As we'll see, the benefits of Cobalt itself don't necessarily all extend to end users. Indeed, there are several important considerations to weigh before personally deciding to take the Cobalt plunge.
NEW STUFF WE GET
PalmOS Cobalt does bring along with it a couple of flashy new features and capabilities. The most obvious of these is a new graphics library that sports fancy capabilities such as translucent drawing, antialiased lines, and scalable add-on fonts. While it was possible for programs to do some or all of these things before, having support in the operating system makes it much more likely that applications will utilize the improved graphics to give snappier looking applications.
OLD STUFF WE LOSE
Nothing comes without a cost, however, and this one's got a couple of doozies. First of all, PalmSource created a new type of PalmOS application and did not make any of the new features backwards compatible. While most older programs will run as-is on the new devices, companies cannot use any of the new features without making new, separate versions of their programs. These new versions, in turn, cannot run at all on existing devices, guaranteeing that developers will spend all their time maintaining two separate versions of every application if they want to access any of the new Cobalt features. Aargh!
Wait, there's more. When PalmSource released PalmOS 5, they struck a huge blow to hacks, desk accessories, popup applications, security apps, and other programs that need to run in the background. Just as we've just about recovered, they've done it again, and--get the doctor--this time it might be terminal.
When OS 5 came about, PalmSource changed the system patching mechanisms, removing many of them but providing an alternate mechanism for key system patches. Some programs got rewritten to accommodate the new method, while others relied on our program TealMaster, which emulates the old standards under PalmOS 5 where possible.
In PalmOS Cobalt, however, not only has PalmSource changed the mechanisms again, but many have been eliminated altogether. Most hack-style applications will not run under Cobalt, even if they run fine under PalmOS 5. Even worse, many of these will probably never be resurrected for Cobalt. Why? All in the name of security.
THE JOYS OF INSECURITY
In the coming year, we'll be hearing a great deal about the security benefits of PalmOS Cobalt, and why we should all run out and buy new devices (at list prices) to get them. "Super Security"... "Secure Superiority"... after all, who doesn't want extra security? Well, maybe we might reconsider if the extra "security" features are, in fact, security *from* us.
You see, when PalmSource designed the new OS, they wanted to meet the needs of their customers. But don't smile yet, as you're not one of their customers and neither are we. Their customers are the device and phone manufacturers that pay PalmSource royalties for each device they sell. And unlike us, phone manufacturers want to restrict the types of applications we can install, lest we put something "unapproved" on our phone that *might* crash the handheld, give it "unsupported" behavior, or (aha!) give someone "unauthorized" access to their communications networks!
And thus, PalmOS Cobalt has new "security" features which, amongst other things, gives manufacturers the sweeping power to prevent hacks, popup programs, background dictionaries, system enhancements, and yes, even other security apps they the don't specifically "sign off" on from running on the device.
While it has yet to be seen whether all manufacturers will choose to restrict such apps, if even a significant percentage of them do, it could create enough confusion in the market to convince developers that it's just not worth the cost to write and support these types of apps anymore. This would be sad, as one of the big benefits of PalmOS has always been ability to fine-tune and personalize our devices with hacks, popups, and similar apps.
When PalmOS moved from version 4 to version 5, there was a clear benefit for all in terms of better memory capacity, cost savings, and speed. This time, however, SmartPhone manufacturers seem to have gotten most of the goodies. For the rest of us, the benefits are not so clear, and it has yet to be seen whether PalmOS Cobalt will be widely adopted by end consumers or most PDA manufacturers.
Indeed, PalmSource may sense some of this uncertainty themselves, which partially explains their odd new naming conventions. They have announced that PalmOS 5 (Garnet) will be sticking around and will be officially supported and independently upgraded for the indefinite future. By naming the two versions "Garnet" and "Cobalt", they are positioning "Cobalt" less as a clear upgrade to "Garnet" and more as a parallel alternative platform. Will this strategy ultimately work? Stay tuned, 'cause we don't know either. But rest assured, we'll be here watching with you to find out.