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Palm success, past and future, depends on developers

Amid growing competition from Microsoft and Symbian, the Palm organization is endorsing interoperability like never before. Experts say the OS-maker's freebie-focused strategy had made developing Palm applications much easier.

As PalmSource Inc. rolls out its new Cobalt operating system, the vendors that develop add-ons for Palm remain central to its ability to compete against burgeoning threats like those from Microsoft and Symbian. While the company has always lavished attention on its developer community, it is now endorsing interoperability -- and, by extension, its developers -- like never before.

Both of the units that comprised Palm Inc. live and die at the hands of their developers. OS specialist PalmSource makes its living through licensing revenue, and device maker PalmOne Inc. draws many users because of the myriad of third-party add-ons that make its devices unique, from GPS receivers to motion sensors.

Words and deeds

At Comdex Las Vegas 2003, PalmSource chief executive David Nagle said that his company is committed to providing interoperable application programming interfaces (APIs).

Fast fact

According to the most recent sales data, Palm OS-based PDAs outsold Pocket PC PDAs, 51% to 36%. Read more.

 With a new operating system, which was released to manufacturers late last year, and the APIs to go with it, the company plans to follow up with more developer-friendly moves. Palm works with chip manufacturers such as Motorola Inc., Intel Corp. and others to make sure that they understand the operating system and its requirements long before chips are ever released. That ensures that the OS will run on a wide range of devices, said Charlie Tritschler, vice president of product marketing at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based PalmSource.

Additionally, the company provides developers with emulators of old operating systems, so that their new applications can work with older devices. PalmSource also sponsors developer conferences four times a year, offers a certification program for third-party applications and products, and gives away plenty of free tools. It also holds special meetings with its top 50 developer organizations to ensure that all those parties are working with the same information, Tritschler said.

Challenges and diversity

Palm's focus on interoperability is critical because of the size and diversity of its developer community. Tritschler said the 300,000 registered users of the Palm software developer kit (SDK) produce not only new applications, but also new hardware for use with the Palm OS.

About 30% of PalmSource's developers are inside enterprises, Tritschler added. Many of them create niche applications for mobile workers in health care, financial services and other industries with specific mobile application needs.

Despite PalmSource's best efforts, developing for the Palm can be challenging, said Dave Formanek, vice president of Cerience Corp., a third-party developer of mobile applications. Different handheld vendors make their own changes to the Palm OS, he said, so applications behave a little differently on each device.

Cerience Corp. uses emulators to gauge how the software will work on different devices. The company also tests the software on devices from the top half-dozen vendors. Inevitably, applications need tweaking, Formanek said. However, he said that Palm was good at enabling vendors to make their applications work on older version of the OS.

That is in stark contrast to developing for Microsoft's Pocket PC; Microsoft generally allows little or no tinkering with its OS, Formanek said. Any changes are made on top of the operating system, which often means that it is easier to make the application work across multiple devices, he said.

But given the hundreds of thousands of developers, the number of vastly different devices running the Palm OS, and the array of hardware add-ons, it is impressive that Palm applications are generally able to interoperate so successfully with so many different components, said Alex Slawsby, an analyst with International Data Corp in Framingham, Mass.

Success and failure

In fact, Slawsby said that the Palm organization has been among the best in the mobile device industry when it comes to interoperability. Most Palm applications written five years ago will run on today's Palm devices, Slawsby said.

For more information

Browse our Topics on the Palm OS.

Read our review of the Palm Tungsten T3.

 And that has helped Palm in the enterprise market, he said, especially since Palm competitors such as Microsoft and Nokia have had problems ensuring that their applications will run on older operating systems, Slawsby said.

Fred Broussard, a senior research analyst with IDC, said that PalmSource must continue catering to business users and their developers. Ensuring that devices can interoperate with applications like IBM's Lotus Notes, Microsoft's Outlook or other, specialized applications is crucial to Palm's future presence in the business market, he said.

The diversity that allows Palm devices to be used for very specific niche markets -- as well as broad consumer purposes -- is at the heart of Palm's strength. And that diversity is drawn from its large developer community, Slawsby said.

And, with its relatively long history in the mobile market, Palm is in a good position to continue to exploit that strength, Slawsby said.

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