Palm OS losing grip on the enterprise

These are troubled times for the Palm OS, and with Windows Mobile adoption on the rise, it may be time for enterprises to prepare for life after the Palm OS.

The future for the Palm OS in the enterprise is looking bleak.

The venerable device operating system has been losing market share to Microsoft, and now hackers claim to be running Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system on their Palm Treos, much to the delight of many users who dream of getting more of the expensive smartphone.

Even the Treo's manufacturer, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Palm Inc., is rumored to ship its next model with Microsoft's increasingly popular smartphone OS.

"I am fairly certain Palm is going to be shipping a Treo with Windows Mobile by the end of the year," said Gartner analyst Todd Kort, who based his remarks on conversations he has had with Palm executives.

Users who are crazy about the Treo, but unable to persuade their IT departments to back the device, may find this welcome news. If Palm embraces Windows Mobile, enterprises could be more interested in Palm's PDAs and smartphones, because Windows Mobile will allow workers to seamlessly sync-up to more of their Microsoft Office data.

Palm OS purists, too, had better get used to doing Windows: Windows Mobile may be the only thing to help Palm stay competitive in the smartphone marketplace.

The Treo currently encompasses more than half of the North American smartphone market, Kort said, but it is selling poorly in places such as the Asia Pacific region.

The problem is not the Treo's hardware, but its dinosaur of an operating system, Kort said.

"Palm's current devices are based on an operating system [Palm OS] that is fast becoming obsolete," he said. "There is a lot of legacy code, no multitasking, no protected memory. It's tough to sell devices based on that OS."

Signs of the demise of the Palm OS are based in part on rumors, such as the one about hackers running Windows Mobile on the Treos. In addition, Palm and PalmSource will not comment on any future operating system strategies.

"It is not Palm's policy to discuss any future events," said a Palm spokeswoman.

But Palm OS users and developers said they are prepared for Palm devices that run on Windows.

One third-party developer that started out with the Palm OS said it is simply responding to customers' demands for mobile apps that are more compatible with those running on their desktop PCs.

"We cut our teeth writing software for the Palm OS marketplace," said Keith Ellenberg, president of Mobile, Ala.-based Chapura Inc., which develops synchronization software for Microsoft Outlook users. The company's synchronization application, PocketMirror, has been bundled with new Palm devices since 1998. PocketMirror for the Palm OS still ships bundled with some Palm Tungsten, Treo and Zire devices.

Chapura is no longer restricting itself solely to the Palm OS market, however. This summer, the company started selling a Windows Mobile version of its PocketMirror Professional software.

"Owners of Windows Mobile handhelds and smartphones have started to mature in their understanding of what their device can do for them," Ellenberg said. They want better consistency in the way they organize their contacts and other personal information in their mobile devices and PCs."

Ellenberg said he believes that brand considerations are driving changes to the software running on smartphones, such as Palm's potential move to Windows Mobile.

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"My guess is that with Microsoft Windows, there is a lot of brand behind that name," Ellenberg said.

PalmSource, meanwhile, is casting its lot with Linux, in an attempt to get its operating system onto more devices. Gartner's Kort put worldwide market share for the Palm OS at about 20%.

By supporting Linux, PalmSource no longer has to focus on maintaining the Palm OS kernel, Kort said. That work will be taken up by the open source community. "[PalmSource] can survive on an operating system that is less expensive [to license]. They could even have very low-end phones running on the system."

Palm users are not surprised at the decline of the Palm OS, which one sees as part of the evolution of PDAs into more sophisticated computers and communication devices.

"Jeff Hawkins [Palm chief technology officer] didn't develop the Palm as a laptop replacement, but as a replacement for the daytimer," said Michael Steinberg, president of the New England Palm Users Group, referring to the inventor of the PalmPilot. "But the market decided [that PDAs] had to do more than that."

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