Palm OS 6 Cobalt Overview: The Palm OS Future
PalmSource took the wraps off Palm OS 6 last week during the PalmSource Developer conference. In this piece we take a closer, in-depth look at the next generation Palm OS operating system. Cobalt is a new enhanced version of the Palm operating system that is designed to enable the creation of new categories of smart handheld devices.
Roles of the Two New Versions
First up was a bit of background on both of the newly announced operating systems and the reasons why PalmSource choose to follow a dual OS approach. Both Cobalt, formally known as Palm OS 6, and Garnet, Palm OS 5.4, will coexist in the marketplace. PalmSouce will still be contiue to use version numbers, for the sake of developer tracking and support personnel, they will just be hidden behind the scenes in the info and about dialouges.
While Cobalt is the next generation operating system, Garnet will continue to be developed and refined. Both provide different solutions for licensees, and they will have a choice between which version meets the need of their devices and or markets. Garnet is being marketed as an excellent choice for today's handhelds and smartphones. Garnet is a mature OS and a good path for entry and mainstream devices with both wireless and telephony capabilities.
Palm OS Cobalt
PalmSource CEO David Nagel called Cobalt, "the most important piece of software [PalmSource has] ever delivered, a revolutionary OS that will have as big an impact as the original Palm OS." The new operating system was built focusing on next generation technologies, while maintaining the hallmarks and ease of use the Palm OS is well known for. It has all the advantages of Garnet, plus a new foundation for advanced telephony, multimedia and enterprise applications. Cobalt makes it much easier for companies and developers to create new classes of mobile devices, software and innovations.
Previously known by its internal code names of Atlas and Sahara, Palm OS 6.0 is now formally known as Palm OS Cobalt. The OS has been completely "re-factored" (to use CTO Larry Slotnick's wording) at the foundation, with more than 80% of the source code being rewritten. It is a 32-bit, fully ARM native Operating System. Palm Inc started the work on the new OS and developed the core microkernal. Following that, the team of Be engineers contributed heavily to the development of Cobalt along with the talented folks at PalmSource.
Multi tasking & Protected Memory
Cobalt is a fully multi threading and multitasking OS, which means developers can create applications that operate concurrently and have tasks performed in the background. For instance, you could be downloading your email over wi-fi, take an incoming phone call and at the same time check your calendar all at once on your device. A background-processing model was designed to reduce most memory problems commonly associated with multitasking in mobile devices. There is also more support for built in RAM and ROM memory with the current max at 256MB. 256MB is by no means a built in ceiling, as higher limits are possible in future releases.
The OS has been beefed up with strong memory protection and security so that applications run in their own memory space and licenses can "plug" in their own security devices or encryption means. Protected memory also means that one application crashs won't bring the entire OS to a halt. As a result, the Cobalt is much less "hacker friendly". Previously, developers had the ability to patch or trap anything in the OS, now applications have their own separated memory space and only specifically signed apps can run in the system space, all of which is transparent to the developer. PalmSource believes you will want to trade "hack-ability" for "support-ability."
Wireless Features and Communications
PalmSource incorporated a new modular communications architecture into Cobalt. It is a unified streams based system that allows multiple continuous communication sessions. This will allow a number of improvements to both wireless and telephony scenarios. For instance you could be connected to a Wi-Fi network and take a voice call at the same time, or be synchronizing your device and have an SMS or email message come in. It will also allow for network applications to run in the background, such as an instant messaging program that always keeps you signed in.
Other features designed to improve the wireless abilities include a integrated Bluetooth 1.1 stack developed by PalmSource. The new stack supports all of the major profiles found in the Bluetooth v1.1 spec. Licensees that incorporate a bluetooth radio will now share the same drivers and APIs, ensuring device compatibility and making it easier to add Bluetooth services to a device. PalmSource has also made other improvements to the Bluetooth drivers that speed up device discovery, setup and pairing.
PalmSource has also put together a standard Phone dialer suite and a new connection manager. The Phone pad incorporates a dialing application and call history and management system, and a SMS system which is integrated with the address book. Developers will also have a standard means for displaying signal strength and other phone information via a new set of APIs. The new connection manager was designed to make it much easier to connect and switch between a Wi-Fi, GPRS, Serial, Bluetooth or any other type of network. It is much more user friendly and simplified than the old system.
On the multimedia side of things Cobalt contains a multitude of new features and improvements. Cobalt contains a extensible programming framework for developers to create richer and more sophisticated multimedia applications. There is a new high quality graphics rendering engine that supports 2D rendering, paths, clipping, video filtering, transparency and other complex drawing routines. Fonts are now fully scaleable and anti-alaised for maximum clarity, there will also be an easy method to any any True Type based font into the system.
High resolution (320x320) support is now built in, as it was previously a licensee extra. There is much more flexible support of large screens, in fact the system can even support screen sizes up to 32,000 by 32,000 pixels. Paving the way for all sorts of new screen sizes and types. Further multimedia support includes native playback of ADPCM/PCM wav files, MP3 and OGG Vorbis, as well as MPEG1 and MPEG4 video. The new sound manager can mix and handle over 16 streams of audio and can also record in 8/16 bit in mono or stereo. PalmSource is also providing APIs for access to audio and video hardware.
Palm OS Cobalt will continue to ship with the standard Palm PIM applications the Palm platform is known for. They have all been updated and are now based fully ARM native code. All the applications will also have built in support for the dynamic input area to expand the viewing area. Address Book and Date Book were redesigned to support up to 255 fields, and now providing better interoperability with Microsoft Outlook. The nature of the PIM databases has been enhanced to allow Palm OS licensees and developers can to extend and customize the PIM databases to create new fields and add features without compromising compatibility or creating incompatibilities. Address books fields have been changed to now more closely resemble their Outlook counterparts, and user data is spread across graphical tabs, instead of having to scroll down for more information.
The core applications included are: Launcher, Preferences Panel, Welcome/Setup, Address Book, Datebook, To Do List, Memo Pad, Card Info, Giraffe and Calculator. Cobalt also includes a number of new applications: The phone pad system, a new media player, which does video and audio, Mobile mail, that can handle both POP3 and IMAP email servers and a SMS messenger program.
The method for adding different character Input means was also revised. Now licensees can easily develop and integrate their own custom input solutions. By default Cobalt will come with the Graffiti 2 system and the on screen keyboard. The collapsable dynamic input area is now also a standard feature built in controlled by a single set of APIs, previously each licensee had their own custom solution.
Cobalt has a number of enhanced security features. It provides built-in encryption, authentication and authorization frameworks for securing applications such as e-commerce solutions, browsers, wireless email and connections to corporate networks via VPN. The extensible structure also offers software developers advanced, industry-standard security services and cryptography. Cobalt also adds a new signed code system, which provides licensees and developers a secure method of authenticating the integrity and source of applications and databases. There are also new means for authenticating users and additional protection against unauthorized access to protected data backup up on a PC.
Cobalts new synchronization system became a controversial topic since is was revealed that there would be no support for the Macintosh platform. One of the reasons is because the synchronization system has been redone and enhanced. The system has a new schema for supporting secure synchronization over a variety of means including serial, USB and Bluetooth. This extended frameworks allows developers to create secure databases. PalmSource has also removed the previous 64K limit on records, which allows for larger databases and faster transfers. Another enhancement is a new HotSync exchange that automatically recognized many standard file formats and automatically converts them. For instance you can transfer images, audio or a spreadsheet over via hotsync without a manual conversion process.
PalmSource says the software transition to Cobalt will be just like the migrations from Palm OS 4 to 5. "Well behaved" apps that comply to with the standard PalmSource APIs should generally be able to run without modification. This is because Cobalt includes a software emulator, designed to enable software programs created for earlier versions of Palm OS to run on Palm OS Cobalt. Other applications should be easily converted with minimal work. David Oakley of Astraware was able to convert Bejeweled to Cobalt in less than a half days work.
PalmSource also introduced new software development tools for Palm OS Cobalt and Palm OS Garnet. A technical preview of the new Palm OS Developer Suíte is now available to Palm OS developers in the Resource Pavilion in the Developer Zone. The new Palm OS Developer Suite is based on the Eclipse environment, an open-source, Integrated Development Environment (IDE) originally developed by IBM that supports software development in a variety of languages, including C, C++, Java and COBOL. PalmSource and its partners now offer a wide variety of development tools, including Metrowerks CodeWarrior, the Eclipse environment, Borland's tool suite and the Microsoft NET compatible tools from AppForge.
As for when to expect the first handheld running Cobalt? The new OS already shipped to developers this past December. My safe estimate would be in the fall of this year, though it is possible something could arrive before late summer timeframe. What about upgrades? Palm OS Cobalt only requires 16MB of ROM space to reside in, so it is theoretically possible to upgrade amy of the current high end handhelds on the market today that have a flash-able ROM greater than 16MB. However it is up to the devices manufacturers themselves to make such an upgrade available for specific handhelds.
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