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Palm's Open Secrets Exposed

palm's open secretsPalm enthusiasts are second only to Apple enthusiasts in the energy they devote to speculation about what products are coming next. It's no surprise, really. Palm isn't quite as secretive as Apple when it comes to giving information about future product releases, but they do a pretty good job keeping their plans under wraps. That leaves the field wide open to all kinds of theories, based on past history, the occasional word that drops from an executive's lips, or fuzzy images "leaked" by Photoshop mavens.

Palm's Open Secrets Exposed

By: David Beers
May 4th, 2006
© PalmInfocenter.com

Palm enthusiasts are second only to Apple enthusiasts in the energy they devote to speculation about what products are coming next. It's no surprise, really. Palm isn't quite as secretive as Apple when it comes to giving information about future product releases, but they do a pretty good job keeping their plans under wraps. That leaves the field wide open to all kinds of theories, based on past history, the occasional word that drops from an executive's lips, or fuzzy images "leaked" by Photoshop mavens.

But if rumors and press release exegetics aren't your bag, you can learn a lot about what to expect from Palm in the coming years from a more authoritative source: Palm's own web site. The trick is to look carefully at the job postings, which often describe new product development in surprising detail. Let's take a walk through some recent job descriptions and see what we can learn. Sorry I can't provide links to the exact page in Palm's site. They use content management software that prevents this, but it's easy enough to find the ones I'm talking about if you want to read more for yourself.

Looking for Linux in all the wrong places?

The first thing that stands out--and has at least since I started checking in August of last year--are the openings for Linux engineers. The idea--I'll go out on a limb and say fact--that Palm has been working on a new Linux-based system for future Palm devices has been discussed quite a bit on this site. Whether or not you believe leaks by an analyst insider who states categorically that Palm's Linux OS is real and coming in 2007, the evidence from the job descriptions is pretty strong. Past and current openings for embedded Linux engineers have been replete with statements like "You will be responsible for the design and development of components of a new software platform." A new posting this month for a "Linux Tools Engineer" seems to indicate that Palm is starting to prepare development tools for this new platform:

"We're looking for an assertive candidate to help shape and maintain our Linux environments, and to deliver innovative tools to be used in creating Palm's world-class mobile devices. The tools include a wide variety of applications from hardware test utilities running on devices to debuggers running on the desktop."

Tux the linux penguin with a treo 650Software developers will recognize the subsequent reference to "Eclipse plugin development" as a sign that Palm is considering building off the same open source tool framework that PalmSource used as the basis for the Palm OS Developer Suite. I'll allow that the mention of "our Linux environments" could refer to internal workstation environments rather than device operating system products, but the reference to "utilities running on devices" is a good sign that this role is related to the "new software platform" mentioned in other postings. Palm has no need internally of new Linux tools for the Garnet development they've been doing for years, still less for the Windows Mobile products that require Microsoft tool chains.

Could Palm be gearing up to license the ACCESS Linux Platform rather than turning its back on PalmSource to build its own successor to Palm OS Garnet? Sure. Palm's Linux OS could be just a fallback plan and it's a good way to cultivate the Linux experience they need even if they end up licensing ALP. But this is where facts yield their ground to theories and rumors. I have mine. You make your own!

Tempted again by the Server Side

Moving on to other job openings we see "Java Server Side Engineer." Server side? When did Palm last develop software for servers? Palm used to operate proxy servers that accepted requests for web pages from the Blazer browser, looked up the desired content and served up a version of it that was optimized for small screens and slow wireless connections. They shut that service down last September, since all Palm and Handspring devices since the Treo 600 have shipped with faster radios and a capable new OS 5 browser that didn't require the proxy.

Palm also used to operate Palm.Net, which was arguably the first wireless network for handheld mobile computers (as distinct from mobile phones or pagers). That service delivered optimized content and wireless application data to the Palm VII wireless PDAs over what was then a pretty large American pager network. Not counting the BlackBerry service, which at that time worked only with pager-like email-only devices, Palm-Net delivered the first "push" email to PDAs thanks to the advent of the Palm i705. But well before Palm.Net ceased operation in August of 2004, Palm had stopped developing new devices for the network and the BlackBerry morphed into a real PDA that soon dominated the now hot push email market.

Everything else Palm has invested or considered investing in on the server side has died on the vine. So it's interesting that we now see signs of renewed interest through job descriptions like this:

"Development engineer for server side application and system software on new product development project. Responsible for all server development (design through implementation and release), working with device engineers and design lead on overall system architecture and design."

The posting speaks of "future applications and web services," experience with "embedded device component integration of server side applications" and working "very closely with Device architect to jointly make design and implementation decisions for the product being developed."

It's difficult to say what "the product being developed" is from this information other than the fact that it seems to involve integration--not mere transfer of documents or files--between server and device. Is it a new smartphone, or a new "something else" that uses mobile data networks to exploit the processing power and storage of a server farm?

Jeff Hawkins has been dropping infuriating hints about upcoming products of a secret "third business" at Palm, which are the implication of "of a world where everyone has a super high-speed Internet connection in their pocket and many gigabytes of storage, super-fast processors, audio, visual and multimedia." Before we consider what that implication might be, let's ask "is that a world that will be here any time soon?"

Actually, yeah. In fact, that world is already here for people who live in range of a 3G wireless network, because once you have the high-speed Internet coupled with voice and maybe a camera, all the rest--the "super-fast processors" and "gigabytes of storage"--is at your fingertips. It's on the server side.

What might Palm be thinking of doing with all that server power? Here again, the facts fail us and we're left with guesswork. The possibilities are pretty exciting, in my opinion. How about using your voice or a photo for inputting data or querying a search engine? Good voice recognition and optical character recognition are still impractical on devices constrained by their batteries to using slow processors, but a server can turn raw voice or image data into plain text and fire it back to the device in a flash. This could overcome one of the most persistent obstacles to the mass adoption of handheld computers: the awkwardness of data input using a stylus or tiny keypad. Of course, it's pure speculation whether this is what Palm is up to, but I offer it to suggest the enormity of the opportunity that broadband wireless data presents for the kind of integration of device and server described in this job posting. It's not just about watching TV on your handset.

One development that correlates intriguingly with this guesswork is the progress Jeff Hawkins' and Donna Dubinsky's new company Numenta has made in developing a new approach to machine vision. They have already demonstrated an early version of their software that they claim does a better job of recognizing objects from incomplete or noisy visual input than previous AI algorithms have achieved. Might Palm become one of Numenta's first licensees down the road? No one knows, but if they did, it's a sure bet that the software for interpreting audio or image data from the device would initially run on a server, not on the device itself.

Enough with the wild speculation. Looking a bit further into the engineering openings at Palm we can find more definite (and down to earth) clues about nearer-term plans for an integrated server/device product.

They can run, but they can't hide

One thing that keeps a lot of companies from deploying smart devices and software to their mobile employees is the hassle of keeping track of those devices, securing their data, and keeping them updated with the latest software and firmware. Once released "into the wild," mobile devices are a lot harder to administer and secure than desktop workstations, which tend to stay put, or at least stay in the building. This makes administering these devices a costly, error-prone affair.

Palm currently has an opening for a "FOTA Software Lead." FOTA stands for firmware update over-the-air. The Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) has created a widely adopted industry standard for device management called OMA Device Management (OMA-DM) of which FOTA is a part. The idea of OMA-DM is to enable an administrator to update the firmware or software of any device in the company remotely over the wireless network. This enables no-touch deployments of new software, remote disabling of devices that have been lost or stolen, and even flashing of the device's ROM with system updates no matter where the device might be lurking.

The FOTA Software lead's job at Palm will be the following:

"Lead effort with cross-functional team to design and developing support for OTA updating of Treo smartphones. This might include working with external vendors.

Work to define a roadmap and architecture for using OMA-DM to provide various services/functionality in a consistent way across Palmís various platforms."

Device management may not sound like the most exciting thing to end-users (which is most of us) but it's a very big thing for IT departments. Your IT department might be a lot more likely to issue you the latest Palm device if they didn't have to worry so much about how they were going to get it back from you to perform updates or what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands. OMA-DM is a Good Thing and I'm not aware of any smartphone or wireless handheld that currently ships with it out of the box. Perhaps Palm hopes to be the first.

Conclusion

Hiring people to create a new product and releasing the product are two different things. Products can be canceled for any number of reasons: engineering problems, changes in the competitive landscape, changes in the priorities of the product managers, or changes in the managers themselves. If you want to know how the chips will actually fall you should get in touch with your psychic advisor and she'll give you information that even Ed Colligan doesn't know. But if you want to know what Palm's plans are--what they are trying to execute on today and hope to ship in the years to come--looking at the job descriptions of the people they are hiring is a good place to start.


David Beers owns Pikesoft Mobile Computing which specializes in custom software development for Palm OS, Windows Mobile, and Java devices. He posts his thoughts on mobile technology and software development at his blog, Software Everywhere.

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Fascinating article, David

freakout @ 5/4/2006 10:44:31 PM # Q
The idea of server-side image and voice search processing is very innovative and would seem to fit in with Hawkins' earlier comments.

It might also be a way for Palm to take the lead in innovation/features again.

This sig is a placeholder till I come up with something good

RE: Fascinating article, David
Simony @ 5/5/2006 2:00:05 AM # Q
Great article. Well done.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their profits.
Reply to this comment

Hit the nail on the head

jeg815 @ 5/4/2006 11:27:23 PM # Q
Awesome article and insight, I am linking to you over at my site. You hit the nail on the head.

Jimmie Geddes, Editor
http://www.gadgetsonthego.net

RE: Hit the nail on the head
twizza @ 5/5/2006 11:35:49 AM # Q
I agree, tis a very well thuoght out article. I have some similar conclusions myself (before ever even looking at the job postings). It will be interesting to see what comes of this all.

mobileministrymagazine.com
antoinerjwright.com
Reply to this comment

Software compatibility

SaxonMan @ 5/5/2006 12:02:35 AM # Q
If Palm is coming up with its own OS would the old software written for Palm OS still run on that new OS? I guess not. To me it seems like a very bold move to put all the effort and the risk into developing your own operation system. If Palm’s windows powered Treo series is going to be a long term success I don’t see why Palm should bother with coming up with its own OS.
Of course, I would love to see some sort of Palm OS play the leading role in the mobile industry (innovation wise) but I personally think that the risks outweigh the benefits for Palm.

regards,
Rainer/SaxonMan
RE: Software compatibility
cervezas @ 5/5/2006 11:47:34 AM # Q
I don't think you have to worry about Palm releasing devices with an OS that doesn't run existing Palm OS software. (Not that software that uses unsupported system hacks might not be broken, just that they clearly would want to leverage the large base of applications and their happy users.)

I think you make a reasonable point that Palm could just go with Windows Mobile for all future phones that need modern features like multi-tasking and support for 3G GSM networks (neither of which Palm OS Garnet is likely to support). But I don't think people would continue to buy Garnet Treos at prices that would make it worth Palm's while--not in the major markets where Treos have been selling to date, anyway. I'm quite sure that Palm has a high priority of shipping devices with a modernized version of Palm OS and knows that can't be done without a modern kernel and services under the hood. That could be ALP, but Palm surely has reasonable concerns that ALP might not meet it's needs or delivered on its timeline. My bet (confirmed by an insider, for what it's worth) is that Palm is going its own way with a Linux system to succeed Palm OS Garnet.

David Beers
Pikesoft Mobile Computing
Software Everywhere blog
www.pikesoft.com/blog

Reply to this comment

Handheld as a Greek learning tool

JohnJackson @ 5/5/2006 12:44:29 AM # Q
While A palm running Linux sounds great most Palm Lovers know that an abundance of free open source software already exists for the Palm.

the site http://www.handheldclassics.com has links to free reader and dictionary programs, also content for learning forign language.

Reading Greek on the palm is now at "hand".

The Bible
Homer

also needed are persons willing to help encode more texts.

Thank You
John Jackson

John Jackson
http://www.handheldclassics.com

RE: Handheld as a Greek learning tool
Simony @ 5/5/2006 2:03:32 AM # Q
Not to mention Thucydides (one of the best books ever, IMHO).

That's a real nice looking site you've got there, John.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their profits.

Reply to this comment

Very Interesting

PenguinPowered @ 5/5/2006 3:28:59 AM # Q
but I think you're reading too much into those ads.

The first one looks very much like a very ordinary IT position in a company that uses Linux workstations.

But if Palm were gearing up to use ALP, they'd want such people. It's easiest to develop for ALP on a Linux platform, and what every customization to ALP Palm would be doing would be customization of Linux applications. I'm still not convinced that all of these Linux positions mean that Palm is working its own Linux, but rather, think that they're just picking up someone else's (MontaVista? WindRiver? Handhelds.org? ALP? Maemo ;) who knows?) and customizing it to a Palm look-and-feel.

I still think that people who predict widespread wi-fi access "RealSoonNow(tm)" are way off base, at least in the US. It takes years to roll out a wi-fi infrastructure, and that's a pretty expensive, moderately high cost infrastructure.

Also, I've seen Hawkins' claims, and I'm familiar with the state of the art in machine vision, and not to put too fine a point on it, but there's nothing to Hawkins' claims.



May You Live in Interesting Times

RE: Very Interesting
marcol @ 5/5/2006 8:55:43 AM # Q
'I'm still not convinced that all of these Linux positions mean that Palm is working its own Linux, but rather, think that they're just picking up someone else's (MontaVista? WindRiver? Handhelds.org? ALP? Maemo ;) who knows?) and customizing it to a Palm look-and-feel.'

Qtopia?

Apparently PalmSource looked but passed:

'Qtopia is popping up in some curious places. Sprint is offering the Kangaroo TV handheld for rent during NASCAR races. And it's already in one VoIP handset, Leadtek's recently announced Videophone.

One place it won't be, at least for the forseeable future, is in a Palm PDA. Eng says that Trolltech was talking to PalmSource at one stage last year, but a deal never materialized.

PalmSource had acquired a Chinese Linux handset vendor late in 2004, and during the spring revised its strategy again, focussing new development entirely on Linux. PalmSource was acquired by Japanese mobile browser company for over $300m late last year, and announced its Linux roadmap in February. In a couple of years it might be where Qtopia is today.

"We talked to them before the acquisition by Access. Obviously we were disappointed."'

'Eng' is Trolltech founder Eirik Chambe-Eng.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/05/04/trolltech_interview/

Wild speculation: perhaps Palm looked but didn't pass?

To those of you who know more than me (everyone reading this I'd imagine): would Qtopia based Palm devices make sense? Qtopia looks to be pretty mature:

http://www.trolltech.com/products/qtopia/

PenguinPowered, Do you know how serious PalmSource were about Qtopia?

PS Sorry if this has been discussed to death here at PIC already (I'm a pretty in frequent visitor).

RE: Very Interesting
cervezas @ 5/5/2006 9:12:57 AM # Q
Marty, I agree that Palm would most likely customize an existing Linux platform. But I'm not aware of any out there that come anywhere close to the well designed user experience of Palm OS. To get that they could just put a Palm OS emulator on top of the kernel and services and call it a day, but this wouldn't give them any significant features or capabilities that they don't have now with Garnet--it would just add a lot of overhead. To get an experience that's somewhat comparable on native apps will take quite a bit of framework and application development on top of anything that I know of in mobile Linux land. You could call it "customization" if you want, but I'd guess it would be pretty heavy customization that would include creating a fair number of new APIs.

Marty wrote:
The first one looks very much like a very ordinary IT position in a company that uses Linux workstations.

I thought of that, too, but ask yourself a couple of questions: what would a Linux engineer be doing creating "hardware test utilities running on devices" if those devices weren't running Linux? And why would Palm need Linux workstations for developing Garnet or Windows Mobile devices? Put it together with the other Linux postings that explicitly mention a new platform and it paints a pretty clear picture that Palm is working on Linux devices.

David Beers
Pikesoft Mobile Computing
Software Everywhere blog
www.pikesoft.com/blog

RE: Very Interesting
cervezas @ 5/5/2006 10:19:19 AM # Q
Oh yeah, Marty wrote:
I still think that people who predict widespread wi-fi access "RealSoonNow(tm)" are way off base, at least in the US. It takes years to roll out a wi-fi infrastructure, and that's a pretty expensive, moderately high cost infrastructure.

Who said anything about wifi? I was talking about EVDO and HSDPA. Those are here today in most large metro areas and rapidly rolling out in the rest.

But since you brought it up, have you looked into the numbers for Mobile WiMax deployment? Pretty cheap from what I hear (though I'm not familiar enough with this market or technology to just how soon we'd be seeing it in the US).

David Beers
Pikesoft Mobile Computing
Software Everywhere blog
www.pikesoft.com/blog

RE: Very Interesting
PenguinPowered @ 5/5/2006 2:51:20 PM # Q
PenguinPowered, Do you know how serious PalmSource were about Qtopia?

TrollTech started into the embedded Linux game as a MontaVista partner, with MontaVist providing the 'bottom half' of the system and TrollTech providing the 'top half', which in their case meant the UI.

Before Access, PalmSource had its own UI design team, and was most concerned about the bottom half. The MontaVista/TrollTech partnership wasn't a good match, and when it broke up, it would have been MontaVista rather than TrollTech that had anything to offer PalmSource. (I still have no idea what happened to the MontaVista/TrollTech partnership or why TrollTech thought that being a GUI provider was a good basis for doing an embedded Linux system.)

I was not at all involved in discussions with either of those companies, so I'll have to let you draw your own conclusion from the information above.

May You Live in Interesting Times

RE: Very Interesting
timepilot84 @ 5/5/2006 5:37:17 PM # Q
The first one looks very much like a very ordinary IT position in a company that uses Linux workstations.

If I needed a support person, I'd be looking for a Linux Administrator, not an Engineer. In my book Engineer==Developer.

RE: Very Interesting
KultiVator @ 5/5/2006 6:38:01 PM # Q
Quite honestly, at this point in time, if Palm are not looking into developing their own successor to Palm OS, then my name is Mavis Beacon.

Banking a sustainable future on licensing copies of WinMob from Microsoft and the as yet unproven ALP from Access/PalmSource would be crazy.

I've been watching the vacancies at Palm for the past couple of years and I think that they prove...

1) Palm has renewed focus following the surprise sale of PalmSource to Access (effectively a new competitor).

2) Palm realises the benefits of retaining control of their own OS in preference to the fickle licensing trends within the handheld marketplace on which PalmSource's revenue stream was based.

3) Linux is the next big thing in mobile technology - and I'm talking in somewhat more revolutionary ways than has been demonstrated in the marketplace up until now. (Let's face it, how much of the Linux underpinnings are visible on a Nokia Cellphone?)

I'm sure Palm will surprise us all in the next year or so.

KultiVator

RE: Very Interesting
PenguinPowered @ 5/5/2006 11:12:00 PM # Q
Who said anything about wi-fi?

That would be Hawkins:

super high-speed Internet connection in their pocket

I dunno about you, but EVDO doesn't qualify as "super high-speed" to me.



May You Live in Interesting Times

RE: Very Interesting
PenguinPowered @ 5/5/2006 11:14:24 PM # Q
In my book Engineer==Developer.

In my book, Enginerr == low self esteem, and has since "Sanitation Engineer" first appeared in the lexicon to describe the guy who picks up your garbage.

But I agree it doesn't read like an admin position. More like a tools position.

May You Live in Interesting Times

RE: Very Interesting
ChiA @ 5/7/2006 12:42:52 PM # Q
Engineer==Developer

I thought engineer was what you yankies called a train driver! Maybe Palm is working on creating a "Linux powered" railroad, this might be the secret third business Jeff Hawkins was hinting at:

http://www.palminfocenter.com/view_story.asp?ID=7999

He states that Palm currently has three business, the PDA market, the smartphone business and a secretive third business involving the next major generation of mobile computing.

He reckons it'll be the next major thing in mobile computing; you can't get much more "major" mobile computing than a 100 ton Linux powered railroad engine!

:-)

RE: Very Interesting but seriously...
ChiA @ 5/7/2006 1:05:17 PM # Q
Perhaps all those Linux engineers are for the secret third business and not for the Treo?

I think most of us who follow PIC hoped or even prayed that Jeff Hawkins wasn't referring to the LifeDrive as the next major generation in mobile computing!

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The Server Side

michael.graff @ 5/5/2006 7:23:30 PM # Q
Here's one example of the server side:

http://www.backupbuddy.net/

It's easy to imagine that growing into a full web-based Palm Desktop.

Or to imagine Palm creating a web-based Palm Desktop that syncs wirelessly from a Treo, no PC/Mac required. No software for the user to install on their PC (or for Palm to support on the user's PC).

More and more of the data I care about isn't on my PC, it's on the web: mail, calendars, etc. That's the stuff I'd like to sync with, any time, anywhere.


RE: The Server Side
LiveFaith @ 5/11/2006 1:56:26 PM # Q
Now, that makes sense.

Pat Horne; www.churchoflivingfaith.com
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Oh Great!

meeksomebody @ 5/5/2006 10:34:37 PM # Q
That's nice, penguins using the Treo 650 and all, but where's the port of Palm Desktop to Linux? By that, I mean full support for Linux, with stuff like LifeDrive Manager and full plug & play.

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Mail Merge crisis

madym @ 7/17/2006 8:38:07 PM # Q
My old Palm software [for earlier versions of the Treo] allowed me to mail merge using MS Word....creating Labels and envelopes from my selected address book contacts.

I now have the Treo 700p...and it appears that they removed this utility! I'm desperate...I used the Palm address listing to create labels and print to envelops for holiday cards, bulk mailings, etc..

HELP!!!!

could sure use a software fix, work around, freeware, or even a program to fix this huge omission....

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