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Mobile operating systems: First thoughts on Access Linux Platform

Mobile operating system Access Linux Platform is a Linux-based system for smartphones which run Palm OS applications and could beat Palm's Linux-based replacement to market.

ALP (Access Linux Platform) -- like its rival being developed by Palm, Inc. -- is a Linux-based operating system for smartphones capable of running Palm OS applications.

Access Systems (formerly PalmSource) is in the process of trying to drum up interest among potential ALP licensees, and couple of people from the company -- Albert Chu and Brian Purdy -- gave me a demonstration.

Applications, applications, applications

To me, the most important feature in this operating system is its compatibility with legacy Palm OS applications. Access has built a compatibility engine called GHost into ALP that handles this task.

I can attest to the fact that it really works. The guys from Access showed me a Palm OS application running on an evaluation device, and it worked fine, even though the smartphone had a QVGA screen. This is a different screen resolution than the software had been designed for, but ALP scaled it down.

But this OS doesn't stop with legacy software. Developers have the option of writing native applications specifically for ALP, plus it includes a Java virtual machine (JVM). All three types of applications are displayed together in the program launcher, not segregated by type.

Look and feel

In general, the user interface Access has come up with for ALP resembles most of its competitors' -- icons for opening applications or changing settings, with a strip across the top of the screen for showing things like the strength of the cellular signal.

I'm including a gallery of screenshots at the end of this article to let you judge for yourself on ALP's look, but keep in mind that it's just one possible theme, so if you don't like the color scheme it can be easily changed.

Unlike the version of the Palm OS currently running on devices like the Palm Centro, ALP allows for real multitasking. Applications that are running in the background can put up an icon in the status bar at the top of the display to make switching back to them easier.

The demonstration I got had ALP running on what's called an "evaluation kit," which has been designed to let companies who are thinking about licensing this operating system test it out. It is not a device for consumers. It uses a 400 MHz XScale processor from Marvell.

Performance was snappy, including running video.

As I said earlier, this device had a QVGA screen, but Chu and Purdy assured me that ALP can handle a wide variety of screen resolutions. It has also been designed to run with or without a touchscreen.

Coming when?

All in all, my first impressions of ALP were positive. It seems to offer the features it needs to replace the current version of the Palm OS, which isn't hard, considering how woefully out of date Palm OS Garnet is.

There's no doubt ALP is ready to go. Early this year, Access released the Product Development Kit (PDK) that licensees need to create smartphones running its operating system, and the Software Development Kit (SDK) developers need to write applications has been out for months, too.

The problem is, I don't know who is going to release a smartphone running ALP, or when it will happen, and Access is being cagey about it.

It's almost certainly not going to be Palm, Inc. Despite its well-publicized delays in getting its own Linux-based replacement for the Palm OS on the market, this company appears bound and determined to carry through with the project.

Access won't give any specifics on what other companies are evaluating ALP. After multiple attempts, the best I could get out of Albert Chu is that it will debut in Europe and Asia before it comes to North America.

The ALP GUI

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