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Nagel, Sakoman map Palm's future

Not the usual Bull

One of my very first forays into the wicked, wicked world of journalism (aged 15) was being shown by a local radio reporter how to re-edit a tape to make the Mayor of Middlesbrough appear to be a slurring, bumbling wreck. I'd wangled a school assignment with the station and having just met the Mayor - a confused and very red-faced fellow - in person, the doctored tape did him no less than justice. Sometimes you have to exaggerate the truth just a little bit, to convey the essential truth.

Yesterday the sun shone on another Mayor as he performed a ribbon-cutting ceremony for PalmSource's new Sunnyvale campus, which also marked a Palm open day for partners and press, and the only exaggerated thing in sight was the quite extraordinary genitalia on a statue that greets visitors at the main entrance. (We provide a photograph below. If you're John Ashcroft, stop reading now).

I wanted to say hello to the Mayor, and remind him that in Hartlepool, which is just over the other side of the River Tees from Middlesbrough, the townsfolk had held their first ever Mayoral election, and elected a monkey.

"Even drunken monkeys aren't safe now!" was the gist of the message I felt compelled to convey, but I was too busy trying to pursue Jean Louis Gassee into a side meeting room. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

Gassee is on the PalmSource board now, along with Palm's Satjiv, and a Stanford professor of economics, and ... Bob Finocchio.

Bob was CEO of Informix when it was disgraced for accounting irregularities in 1997 - it wrongly and illegally booked revenue worth $278 million, and paid out $142 million in shareholder lawsuits in which Informix admitted no wrong doing. Inevitably, this resulted in a brief spate of joyous Finocchio/Pinocchio puns, and even more inevitably, when his nose could grow no longer, Bob resigned from Informix - where he was also chairman of the board - two years ago. Bob was also a 3Com executive and a co-litigant, with Eric Benhamou, the 3Com boss who delayed the Palm spin-off just long enough so that Palm's Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky left to start Handspring, Inc. Jean Louis, who we love to pieces, was also a 3Com board member.

But all of this will be edited out of the final tape. It's irrelevant. Well, almost irrelevant: we only mention it because the old 3Com ghosts are still hanging around, clanking their chains. Both Eric and Donna were at the ribbon-cutting yesterday, but note: Eric left before Donna arrived.

Palm redux

Now that we've got all that out of the way, what's the Palm pulse?

The beast is alive, we're very glad to report. Palm doesn't have the triumphalism of its post-IPO era, and it doesn't combine paranoia with babbling nonsense either. These are nice people to do business with, which is exactly what's called for when you're trying to create new partnerships.

It's a tricky time of transition, with PalmOS 5 providing a rope bridge to a new hardware platform, while not quite giving Palm developers or users a taste of a new, clean and highly promising platform that the former Be Inc. are brewing before The Bull. On the subject of the all-new, singing and dancing Palm OS6 - which should be shipped to developers next summer - Steve Sakoman was completely silent. Steve is really CTO of PalmSource, and quite a bit more, and although he doesn't have "CTO" in his job title, he's the best-loved CTO in the Valley.

But he wouldn't even commit to a public ship date, nor confirm what the language of choice of the APIs would be.

C, or C++?, we asked.

"It'll be Snoball!" he told us. "Ha! Ha!"

Palm has an emulation layer for OS5, and Sakoman said it was a "delicate line" to get the OS onto ARM, "where customers don't have this cliff to face". The easy thing for Palm would have been to make a clean break, and move to a new AP. But with 14,000 developers and an infinite variety of "cheats" - code that writes to the hardware - it would have had to create a new platform from scratch. Actually, this is what Palm is doing anyway, but it's minimizing the pain. David Fetter told us that the emulation layer is going to be around for a long time, as long as people want it.

We wondered how much legacy Be code would make it into PalmOS6. "We're picking and choosing," said Sakoman, "in some cases it's the right thing, in other's it isn't." There's a school of thought that believes that PalmOS is some straight port of BeOS to a handheld: this is a ludicrous idea, Sakoman said.

PalmSource wouldn't be providing air interfaces to smartphone manufacturers - the GSM or GPRS or CDMA stacks. Sakoman said that Palm provided pretty good abstraction in its telephony APIs already. Third parties could provide the rest. Indeed, the three contenders for Palm hardware: Texas Instruments, Motorola and Intel were all present and all offer bundled phone stacks if you don't want to shop around yourself.

Phone futures?
We asked PalmSource supremo David Nagel if he thought that converged handsets, i.e. smartphones, would become a commoditized business similar to today's PC business, as Microsoft dearly wishes, with millions of white box vendors, or whether it would stay in the hands of a few companies.

Nagel's reply was nuanced, thoughtful and very interesting. Yes it would become commoditized. But it wouldn't look like the PC business for three reasons: the carriers like to set the terms; the technology is too complicated for white box builders to throw components into a box and hope they work - as integration is an issue; and there's scope for terrific differentiation between devices, which are already fashion accessories, and the Dell model doesn't work in such a market.

Differentiators will be rewarded, he believes, and the economics of a market with lots of different form factors and utilities isn't going to create a new Dell. PC makers resent having every cent squeezed from them, Nagel suggested, and this isn't going to happen in the smartphone space.

Wow. We've covered these points in detail here, but the emphasis on the "value" chain argument, suggests that Palm has learned what Microsoft doesn't yet know. This isn't Wintel economics.

Of all the things Nagel could have said, we thought this was pretty optimal, and should be the most encouraging to long-time Palm platform loyalists.

Samsung and Kyocera both showed imminent new PalmOS phones, and Handspring's cdma2000-baed Treo 300, which you can actually buy now, completed the picture. All provide a great deal more utility than American consumers are used to from handhelds. European or Asian readers might be appalled by how primitive they are: none has expansion or Bluetooth, and to be honest, none of the offerings looks like recent (two year old) technology. We're getting spoiled, for sure, with our Nokia and SonyEricsson screens.

We'll give you some first impressions later today, and after that - and if we haven't offended the sensitive vendors too much - full reviews should follow in the next couple of weeks. Kyocera and Samsung's phones aren't available yet, but Stateside readers: if you've an idle moment this weekend, try and find a Treo 300 on Sprint.

Although this isn't 3G, as Sprint somewhat desperately claims, it's comfortably superior to any GPRS-based combination you can find in the US this week. And without a compelling GPRS or CDMA offering from the big boys (Nokia, SonyEricsson, Motorola) on the slate this year, it could have time to prosper.

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And here's the inspiration. Very impressive. ®

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