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 6 Cobalt Screen Capture ~ Click for morePalm 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."

Palm OS Cobalt BenefitsWireless 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.

Palm OS Cobalt BenefitsHigh 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.

Palm OS Cobalt BenefitsSecurity
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.

Application compatibility
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.

Developer Tools
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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Application compatibility Application compatibility

hotpaw4 @ 2/18/2004 8:37:24 PM #
For an example of the compatibility with well-behaved PalmOS applications: a few developers managed to successfully run some apps which were written for PalmPilots way back in 1997 on actual hardware (test boards) running Cobalt.
RE: Application compatibilityApplication compatibility
helf @ 2/18/2004 9:22:04 PM #
yeah, one of the best behaved '3d' programs is duum, it was never finished and it more opf a tech demo of a 3d walk around type game.. but it runs on anything, from my palm pro all the way to my zodiac.

RE: Application compatibility
PAK5695 @ 4/22/2008 4:44:55 PM #
You'r one to say, you can't even spell dumb

RE: Application compatibility Application compatibility
SeldomVisitor @ 4/22/2008 6:03:04 PM #
Retro - is that it?

Multi Threading

Doo @ 2/18/2004 9:21:45 PM #
This makes me nervous. If the don't do it write it will suffer the same woes of PPC. If it shuts down the programs right it will rock.

RE: Multi Threading
LiveFaith @ 2/18/2004 9:52:23 PM #
PSRC has no choice. Multithreading is demanded by the marketplace for powerful mobile devices. They sure have taken a long time, brought the BeOSers, and done it from the ground up, so let's see what happens. I say their innocent until proven guilty. I would love to see my TT3 with this on it!

Pat Horne;
RE: Multi Threading
RhinoSteve @ 2/18/2004 10:20:52 PM #
They have done it right. Trust me. These guys are good. How good? They are able to tell Microsoft to shove off and still make a very good living. Yes, they are THAT good!

RE: Multi Threading
hotpaw4 @ 2/18/2004 10:21:46 PM #
someone wrote:
> If it shuts down the programs right it will rock.

You're in luck. Cobalt current shuts down generic applications as soon as you launch another generic app, so they won't take up any program memory when not running.

Only lighter weight background threads will be left running, and only for new Cobalt apps which specifically request this feature (to download chat, email or web pages in the background, for instance). The user will get many of the benefits of multitasking on a small display device, with few of the costs.

RE: Multi Threading
acaltabiano @ 2/19/2004 12:32:58 AM #
What do you mean they told MS to shove it? they are catering to them! Dropping Mac support (yeah, I know, missing sync, etc. But, THEY dropped mac support), and have made all of their stuff to fall in line with the MS model. I don't think that is telling them to shove it. It is more like getting on their knees and telling them they love them, complete with teabag.

RE: Multi Threading
jasonandmaria @ 2/19/2004 7:47:46 AM #
Palm obviosly is learning from Miscrosoft's mistakes. I'm glad that the changes are largely under the hood. It's hard to beat the usability and efficiency of the no nonsense Palm UI. I think Cobalt will probably feel like the POS4 to POS5 upgrade, basically the same but better/faster/more complete.

RE: Multi Threading
helf @ 2/19/2004 10:27:34 AM #
actually, os5 is faster on the slower arm units. A dev friend of mine that was at palmsource said that os6 was sloow on a 100mhz arm demo board but screamed on a 400mhz board. So i'm sure all unit that run it will be 200mhz or faster.. :)

RE: Multi Threading
rsc1000 @ 2/19/2004 1:29:27 PM #
The MS approach with Pocket PC multi-tasking is identical to multi-tasking on the desktop - except is harder to shut down an app. you've got to do the '6-taps though the settings' to shut down apps (though apps can override smart-minimize and actually shut down when the user taps the 'x' - but this further confuses things because users don't know when an app has done this). This is exactly the wrong way to do multi-tasking on a PDA because only certain types of things should ever be running in the background. On the desktop where you have the screen real-estate, it makes sense to allow lots of apps to be open. On PDAs - where an app with a gui takes up the full screen (typically) - this doesnt makes sense. Its better to close full-screen apps when you launch another. Apps that need to run in the background (apps with no gui or apps designed to 'pop-up' the interface over part of the existing app temporarily) should be able to do this when specifically requesting multi-tasking from the OS. Thats the way PalmSource has done it - and thats the way a handheld device SHOULD do it. Its a very clean model that both eliminates the MS multi-tasking problems AND provides clean backward compatibility. They did it right.

RE: Multi Threading
RAMdŽd @ 2/20/2004 10:29:46 AM #
I have a T3 and an older iPAQ.

There are times when I don't charge the iPAQ over the weekend and get a Low Battery alert on Monday or Tuesday. When I do the 6-Tap Dance, I see that I have several apps running that didn't shut down when I closed them (unlike the desktop/laptop version of Windows).

So I have to make sure I actually shut the apps down for the weekend.. I don't understand the philosophy behind that. The battery is already challenged as it is.

On the days that I don't use my T3, there is almost no battery drain to speak of. And it's much tougher on the battery, so I appreciate the low drain when I'm not using it.

An armed society is a polite society.

RE: Multi Threading
Powieee @ 7/22/2005 10:51:05 PM #
What's this Plam OS's Threading Model ? User, kernel or hybrid?

RE: Multi Threading
PAK5695 @ 4/22/2008 4:48:13 PM #
OMG You can't spell too and you call us geeks

RE: Multi Threading
SeldomVisitor @ 4/22/2008 6:03:54 PM #
Not interested in commas, huh?


Impartial @ 2/18/2004 9:55:58 PM #
Maybe PIC should stop saying that the Eclipse-based tools are available to developers? They really aren't. A few copies were given out at the developer conference, but no versions (prerelease or otherwise) are publicly available.
hotpaw4 @ 2/18/2004 10:04:02 PM #
Not a few. Several hundreds of copies of CD with the tools were handed out to any developer in attendance who wanted one, no NDA required. The Cobalt tools installer is over 250 MB, so they might be having a bit of a problem figuring out how to keep their web server from getting slashdotted to death.
RE: Inaccuracy
RhinoSteve @ 2/18/2004 10:22:38 PM #
Better, some developer may have alread TARed the CD to a website and put the release in gray zone legal. And no, I don't have any idea of a URL that has that posted.
RE: Inaccuracy
Admin @ 2/18/2004 11:10:52 PM #
For the record I say in the article a "technical preview" is now available to developers, not the tools.

Can any developers comment on when they are due?


Tools availability
bcombee @ 2/19/2004 12:10:35 AM #
According to posts on the tools-forum mailing list, the holdup is PalmSource figuring out how to host 250MB downloads for the developer community; its a technical issue they're working on. It looks like the 0.1.1 release of the tools will be the first ones available online.

Ben Combee, CodeWarrior for Palm OS technical lead
Programming help at
RE: Inaccuracy
stickboy @ 2/19/2004 2:02:28 AM #
Using BitTorrent to distribute the developer tools probably would be a good ideas, especially since most developers should be fairly technically-savvy.

RE: Inaccuracy
McMagnus @ 2/19/2004 12:41:38 PM #
I was just about to suggest that as well. It's the perfect tool for the task, and a good opportunity to demonstrate perfectly legal uses of P2P networks.

To prohibit spoofing, PalmSource could post a small tool on their site to verify the authenticity of the package once it's downloaded.

RE: Inaccuracy
bcombee @ 2/19/2004 3:41:52 PM #
The BitTorrent idea also came up on the tools-forum mailing list. They are investigating using it, but only it is provides sufficient download tracking abilities (they want to know how popular the tool suite is!)

Ben Combee, CodeWarrior for Palm OS technical lead
Programming help at
Is Metroworks out of the picture now?
ConfusedVorlon @ 2/19/2004 7:44:03 PM #

Does this mean that Metroworks is out of the picture as a palm IDE?

Will you bow out or try to compete with the free offering?

RE: Inaccuracy
bcombee @ 2/19/2004 11:53:03 PM #
I can't comment on any future plans for Metrowerks at this time. We are in a legally-mandated quiet period where we cannot make any public statements about future plans, due to the separation of Motorola's semiconductor group (Metrowerks's parent company) into a separate company.

Ben Combee, CodeWarrior for Palm OS technical lead
Programming help at
RE: Inaccuracy
twalk @ 2/20/2004 4:56:41 PM #
Hey Ben,

I'm a current CW customer, but I'm not planning on upgrading. Part because CW9 does good enough, part because of PalmSource getting into the act.

However if you could make CW easily target Palm + PPC + Symbian and hide many of the differences, then I'd pay $200 over the current upgrade rate for the next version.

moot subject

markrp @ 2/18/2004 9:59:08 PM #
This new info. may be a moot subject, since you can't keep a Palm charged long enough to play games or anything else for any length of time.

I wish they would concentrate on a batter that lasted as long as a Gameboy SP.

Most gaming programs are limited now due to the short time between recharging a Palm.

Palm battery life is not sufficient.


RE: moot subject
hotpaw4 @ 2/18/2004 10:11:12 PM #
It's up to each licensee to decide how big a battery to include in each device, not PalmSource. That said, OS 6, by allowing completely ARM native apps, should allow devices to be designed which use less power than OS 5 devices running similar applications.

In any case, a big bright LCD display will always cost dearly in terms of battery life. Fortunately, you can still buy PalmOS devices with small dim monochrome displays for the better battery life.

RE: moot subject
kevdo @ 2/19/2004 12:06:24 AM #
>you can't keep a Palm charged long enough to play games
>or anything else for any length of time

What are you talking about? I use my Zodiac for hours at a time and it certainly is well charged throughout the day. Comments like this don;t serve any useful purpose.

-Kevin Crossman, Palm Powered Software Champion

RE: moot subject
Admin @ 2/19/2004 12:14:24 AM #
its kinda like asking Jeff Hawkins about why you're backup card doesn't work!
RE: moot subject
just_little_me @ 2/19/2004 12:40:06 AM #
:-) That was a funny moment for sure... and by "funny" I mean very very strange...!!


RE: moot subject
craigf @ 2/19/2004 12:58:02 AM #
I felt like slappin' the guy. He gets his one chance to ask the Jeff Hawkins a question in front of everyone and THAT'S what he asks? How lame.
RE: moot subject
BUDD @ 2/19/2004 10:10:49 AM #
There are also LARGE,CLEAR monochrome units like the Dana with 20 hours of battery life if that's an issue for ya (it is for me). I agree with the guy--and give in to the idea of a user replaceable battery (2-year LithIons = disposable device = toy).

RE: moot subject
Altema @ 2/19/2004 10:11:39 AM #
"Most gaming programs are limited now due to the short time between recharging a Palm."

4 hours not enough? 15 hours with the expansion battery leave you hanging? You obviously have no time for work and don't need anything more than a gameboy!

RE: moot subject
helf @ 2/19/2004 10:29:39 AM #
wha? I played stunt car extreme on my zodiac 1 for over and hour and the battery showed 99% charge. ALL my old palms got days or weeks of battery life even with heavy use. Some of the os5 palms are the only ones with short battery life really.. tungsten t3 is one..

RE: moot subject
jjsoh @ 2/19/2004 12:50:42 PM #
Hahaha... Altema has it right, as far as I'm concerned. I would think most people use PDAs primarily to organize their life, with gaming as an added 'luxury'.

Going even further off-topic, I think BUDD has a point about user-replaceable batteries. I like the idea of it being held in place with a screwed-on cover (i.e. GBA SP) so that after a long period of time, you don't have to purchase a new PDA because the battery can't hold a decent charge any longer.

However, not in the way that Sony has implemented it in the NZ Series. I think that's a terrible workaround for the fact that those CLIEs drain batteries way too fast. Who wants to carry an extra battery with them all the time? I still would like my PDA to last a week or more even after intermittent daily usage.

I would love to just slip in a new battery without (a) having to waste time and extra money sending my PDA out to a company which can do it for you or (b) doing it yourself by ordering an internal replacement battery where you have to open up the PDA yourself and hope you don't break something along the way.

After daily use of my Tungsten|T since its launch back in Nov. '02, I can definitely feel the battery's charge getting weaker as the weeks pass on by. It would be nice if the battery can be easily replaced, because I'm not ready to buy a new PDA right now... especially since OS6 is right around the corner.


RE: moot subject
Altema @ 2/19/2004 12:57:26 PM #
"tungsten t3 is one.."

That's the one I gave times for, the point being that you can get some serious playtime on virtually any Palm OS device. I just completed 3 hours and 56 minutes of work on my T3 and the battery is at 64%. Plenty left for Flames, Space Combat, Cubis, and RifleSlugs-W!

Palm = Games+Work
GB = Games+0

RE: moot subject
rsc1000 @ 2/19/2004 1:46:02 PM #
The immediate salvation for battery life appears to be coming in the form of smarter systems that scale back clock speed (Sonys 'handheld engine' is a great example - though there are a few kinks to work out) and with new OLED displays. We've heard of coming new battery technology (PIC has covered some of this), but the big gains we will see in the near future are related to these (scaling cpu and oled) solutions for reducing power consumption. I don't want the new th55 from sony (those buttons send me into a rage just thing about them) - but its a great proof of copcept for reducing battery drain. pretty incredible numbers Sony has managed there in terms of hours of use.

RE: moot subject
neuttron @ 2/19/2004 5:52:03 PM #
my t3 hangs just fine a daywork, reading native files and jpegs.
You have to "pay" for landscape and processor, but I think is kinda cheap.

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