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Tuesday
Mar182003

Why PalmSource Should Remain Independent

Sony and PalmSourceI came across this interesting Q&A with PalmSource's David Nagel at InternetNews.com. Most interesting to me was how Nagel called Sony CEO Nobuyuki Idei's interest in buying PalmSource old news.

Regarding Sony or for that matter, any other licensee buying PalmSource -- I hope it never comes to pass.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I love my Sony Clie N610C and think Sony is doing a fabulous job building innovative Palm handhelds. In fact, I believe Sony saved the Palm economy at its lowest point. Just think back to those low-point days, when Palm dealt out their the dull-screened and pre-hyped m505 after many months of speculation (stranding thousands of Palm Vx devices in warehouses and on store shelves). Remember how scarce color Palm handhelds were while black and white Pocket PC devices were all but extinct?

Sony's entry into the Palm handheld market truly invigorated the Palm community and challenged other licensees (and even Pocket PC makers) to match their innovations. Sony has maintained their "new handheld every quarter" approach (thrilling some, driving others crazy), has established 320 x 320 hi-res and 320 x 480 hi-res+ screens and Sony was the first Palm OS licensee to introduce MP3 playback capabilities built into stock Palm handhelds.

So why would I not want Sony to own PalmSource if I think they've been such a saving grace to the Palm economy and Palm community?

First off, I believe the Palm OS would become much less attractive to licensees if Sony controlled PalmSource and the Palm OS. One of the biggest reasons PalmSource was legally separated from the hardware-oriented Palm SG (Solutions Group) was to reassure Palm OS licensees that PalmSource would be equally helpful toward all licensees, without any special favoritism toward Palm SG.

If Sony were to buy PalmSource, this would resurrect the very problem Palm SG and PalmSource have worked so hard to eliminate by splitting. Even if Sony could keep their fingers out of PalmSource after a purchase, the perception of favoritism would still exist. Licensees would likely see Sony gaining 'extra benefit' from being the owner of PalmSource. This could even cause a slow defection from the Palm OS, which would be a huge negative for the Palm economy and Palm community.

One of the unique features the Palm OS platform offers over the Pocket PC platform is a true diversity of products. While Pocket PCs are great devices for various purposes, manufacturers must closely follow Microsoft's strict specifications. This means differentiation between Pocket PC devices is limited to cosmetic appearance, processor speed, RAM size and how many removable media slots are offered. This makes comparison between devices much easier but it severely limits a licensee's freedom to innovate or to dream up wild new devices.

PalmSource has taken a completely different approach, by adopting an attitude of device diversity, which allows licensees get creative with hardware implementation. This is why the most diverse PDA devices, like the AlphaSmart Dana, Garmin iQue and the Fossil WristPDA Watch are all running Palm OS.

Now there are some drawbacks to this approach, mainly for developers who must deal with multiple versions of applications, each compiled for a different screen size, resolution or processor. To minimize this, PalmSource must remain an active caretaker of the OS. They must encourage development of innovative new features by licensees and then incorporate those new features into the OS as soon as reasonably possible. However, PalmSource must also maintain firm control over licensees who want to reinvent features similar to those already present in the OS.

I'm pleased that PalmSource is an independent company. Licensees should be given the freedom to explore diverse approaches to integrating the Palm OS into handhelds and other mobile devices without a highly constricting hardware spec sheet. I believe PalmSource's Unity through Diversity approach encourages Palm licensees develop many more cool, useful products, and that's a good thing! Long live PalmSource!

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