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8/16/2005
11:38 AM
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Can Linux Put PalmSource Back On Top?

If its strategy for migrating its Palm OS over to an open-source kernel is successful, PDA powerhouse PalmSource could thrust Linux into the center of the mobile device marketplace.

After a long stretch of bad news for a company whose software once turned words such as “PDA” and “Palm Pilot” into household names, PalmSource is finally showing signs that maybe, just maybe, it can field the right product, at the right time, to turn its luck around.

Last December, PalmSource announced it had acquired mobile Linux vendor China MobileSoft and planned to use the company's technology to migrate its Palm OS to a Linux kernel. In the months following the announcement, Linux has enjoyed a burst of momentum, serving as the engine for a growing number of next-generation mobile devices. Motorola is well on its way to delivering on its promise to roll out 8-10 Linux-based phones this year, TrollTech says it is now working with 20 device vendors making Linux phones, and PalmSource in July landed its first major new licensee in years, electronics giant LG, with an agreement that looks unmistakably like a Linux play.

It’s too early to tell how the leap to an open-source kernel plays out for PalmSource; for now the company is still fighting an uphill battle against declining sales of traditional PDAs and a series of delays that have plagued handsets running Palm OS Cobalt, the latest version of its mobile operating system. Today, even though PalmSource has refocused its energies almost entirely upon moving the Palm OS to Linux, the first devices running on its new platform are probably two years away.

Yet as PalmSource executives begin to speak more freely about the company's reasons for adopting Linux, it is becoming clear that an open-souce future could be very good to the Palm OS -- while PalmSource itself could play the same pivotal role in the Linux mobile device market that Red Hat played during the early years of the Linux server market.

Already A Success, But …

Many people find it surprising that worldwide Linux smartphone sales (as Gartner defines the term) already outsell those running Windows Mobile for Smartphones, Palm OS, and BlackBerry OS combind . Other ways of carving up the notoriously slippery “converged device” pie show Linux and Microsoft more evenly matched, however, and the fact remains that Symbian OS still dominates them all, claiming more than two thirds of the smartphone market.

Even so, the spike this year in the number of Linux-based 3G handsets has shifted some heavyweight mobile software companies in to full-hyperbole mode, such as OpenWave's comparison of mobile Linux to DOS during the early years of the personal computer market. Setting aside the hype (which is a familiar and unpleasant sight to desktop-Linux partisans), what are the fundamental forces transforming the world's most popular Web server OS into a killer mobile device platform? Do those forces justify PalmSource betting the farm on a risky strategic shift after years of work on Palm OS Cobalt, the proprietary Palm OS release created to compete against Windows Mobile and Symbian OS?

Simply put: Will Linux succeed as a mobile device platform?

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