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SanDisk blames PalmSource, PDA vendors for Wi-Fi card delays

Are they really as different as all that?

SanDisk has revealed why it has failed to meet a number of release dates put in place for the Palm OS version of its Wi-Fi SD IO card. The cause of the delay, it claims, is not only PalmSource, owner of the operating system, but the various companies behind the PDA hardware.

That the card is not made by SanDisk emerged this week when manufacturer SyChip began touting the product as a way to incorporate Wi-Fi into smartphones. SyChip let slip that it was the producer of the SanDisk card, a relationship vendors usually prefer to keep confidential.

SyChip has supplied the hardware to SanDisk for some time now, along with Windows Mobile drivers. And it's been working on Palm OS drivers too, initially intending to co-incide their release with the summer shipment of the PocketPC version. The date then slipped to some time in the autumn, and most recently to Q1 2004.

In the interim, plans to support Palm OS 4 have been shelved. If drivers ship, they will now only support Palm OS 5. The Palm OS 4 drivers did make it to a pre-release Alpha version, but "after reviewing Alpha-stage software a number of issues became apparent and made further development unfeasible", SanDisk told us.

"Challenges to developing Palm OS 4.1 drivers involve the hardware itself," the company said. "The m500 series did not originally include network files and upgrading the hardware to add these requires technical expertise that is beyond what can be reasonably expected from most users. The processor is another hurdle. It is too slow to take advantage of Wi-Fi access speeds and results in performance near dial-up speeds. This would not be an acceptable outcome."

The Palm OS 5 drivers, meanwhile, have reached Beta release. But again, hardware is proving a limiting factor: there's an issue with the electrical design of some Palm Powered devices such as the Treo 600, the company alleged.

"Since Wi-Fi capabilities were not an original design requirement for these devices, the majority of them use components with maximum power specifications below Wi-Fi needs. It is technically possible to use the SD Wi-Fi card but its usage may damage the device and void the warranty. A number of handheld computer manufacturers have assured SanDisk that they will modify the designs of their SD IO devices to correct this problem."

At the same time, there's also a question over who owns the right the portions of the Palm OS necessary to develop the drivers, SyChip notes. That led to delays while PalmSource made sure it held the rights - de-mergers clearly don't run as smoothly as the press releases suggest - and even more while SyChip and PalmSource reached "an understanding". According to SanDisk, the two firms are now ready to sign on the dotted line, paving the way for the release of the drivers.

Well, almost. Another, deeper, problem exists: "A key issue of developing working SD Wi-Fi drivers is the way Palm (and now PalmSource) manages its OS. Hardware OEMs who license Palm OS are allowed to customise the operating system for their particular application. This often results in a growing number of proprietary, device-specific, Palm OS variations. Software driver developers are tasked with device specific development, which takes considerable time and resources," SanDisk said.

For its part, PalmSource believes that the hardware diversity its believes is essential for the evolution of the Palm OS platform can only be achieved by yielding to hardware manufacturers the freedom to add whatever features they need, Jean-Mark Holder, PalmSource's EMEA marketing director, told The Register.

"We say 'do what the hell you like', and then bring the device to us and we'll validate it as a Palm OS device," he said. "We test the device to make sure it match our specifications for Palm OS compatibility."

That includes, he said, checking that the hardware delivers the correct response to API calls. PalmSource now has full control over the Palm OS intellectual property, which must include SD IO APIs developed by the old Palm long before the PalmSource/PalmOne split, Holder added. The OS supports all the major wireless standards, including Wi-Fi, Holder said.

We're also surprise that SD IO implementations should vary so much between devices, since the interface is also a standard. The SD Card Association (SDCA) governs the compatibility between SD memory cards, and possibly IO specifications too. SyChip is an executive member of the SDCA, so it should know what it's dealing with. SanDisk is an executive member too.

SD IO may not have been specified with Wi-Fi radio power requirements in mind, but we're surprised that if a broad array of PocketPC devices can sustain it that Palm OS-based machines can't. Why would so many Pocket PC makers boost the spec. on the off-chance someone might add a Wi-Fi card, while Palm device makers don't?

Meanwhile, SanDisk finds itself stuck between frustrated users on the one hand and SyChip's development problems on the other. Its move to provide a background to the delays is an attempt to pacify the former and chivvy on the latter. The company says it "remains fully committed to offering the widest support for its SD Wi-Fi cards".

We're sure it does. We just hope it can offer said support sooner rather than later. ®

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