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Palm signs Intel, Motorola as ARM chip partners

Will all build reference designs for ARM-based PDAs

Palm today announced it is indeed moving over to ARM's processor platform, and has signed up Intel to produce reference silicon for ARM-based PDA hardware designs.

Not that Palm's current processor partner, Motorola, is being left out. Its move to licence ARM's CPU design for incorporation into its Dragonball processor family hasn't been ignored by Palm. Motorola's ARM-based Dragonball MX1 will join Intel's StrongARM and XScale CPUs as reference silicon for the next generation of Palm PDAs.

The key phrase here is "reference silicon". Palm clearly intends its move to make the ARM platform more PalmOS-friendly - ensuring the processor family is easier to adopt - and to make it possible for Palm OS licensees to choose from any chip manufacturer that has licensed ARM's processor technology. The reference designs will be sub-licensed to other chip makers.

It's a canny plan. Quite apart from migrating the Palm OS to a more advanced processor platform, allowing it to compete more effectively with PocketPC and deliver the kind of functionality users are coming to expect from PDAs now the devices are no longer just PC accessories, the scheme gives not only Palm but its licensees multiple, competing CPU sources, which all the cost advantages that entails.

PalmOS licensees get a new, faster platform to work with, a more advanced PalmOS - the upcoming version 5.0 - to offer and room to choose another CPU maker if they think their current supplier is charging too much, instead of getting tied down to the supplier Palm tells them to use.

Essentially, Palm is freeing licensees to make more choices of their own, improving its platform's appeal to potential licensees into the bargain.

ARM, meanwhile, does quite nicely out of it too. While it doesn't win more customers per se, Palm's move is a boost for its technology. It should also increase demand for ARM-based CPUs, which not only improves ARM's royalty receipts, but may well encourage more chip makers to licensee its IP.

No wonder, then, that ARM will "will work closely with Palm to ensure that the Palm OS migrates smoothly to the ARM architecture and that ARM development tools are optimised to support the Palm OS platform", Palm said in a statement issued this morning.

Motorola is clearly putting a brave face on the announcement, but it can't be too pleased that Palm is bringing Intel and - potentially - other CPU makers into the Palm Economy. Palm's move is something of a snub, and quite right too. Palm has matured to the point where it needs multiple suppliers to remain competitive. That would be true even if Motorola had extended the Dragonball family further and more quickly than it has.

Still, as yet Palm has made no decision as to which supplier it will choose - or even which suppliers, plural. Nor has it said when it will make the switch to ARM, but the pressures of the market mean that should happen sooner rather than later.

Finally, Palm also signed up Texas Instruments to its 'Palm OS Ready' program. Unlike, ARM, Intel and Motorola, TI will focus on the development of PalmOS-optimised reference technology for wireless comms.

Getting someone like TI on board is essentially a rejection of the 'not invented here' mindset so common among technology companies. More importantly, it provides - as with the ARM deal - for multiple sources for key PDA components. Again, that's about cutting some of the restrictions that tie down licensees keen to make their products stand out from their rivals'.

And that includes Palm itself. Arguably, today's move is the clearest statement the company has made that it wants licensees to expand the PDA market, to a degree at its own expense. That, in turn, is perhaps the clearest sign that Palm is looking to split into separate hardware and platform development operations. ®

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