Developers squeeze Palm inside PocketPC

Users of Microsoft's Windows CE platform have lusted after Palm's library of applications for years - will they finally get their wish?

Fans of Microsoft's Windows CE handheld computers who have long dreamt of being able to run Palm Computing applications on a Windows CE PocketPC device may soon find that their dream is moving closer to reality.

The idea is simple: PocketPCs have processor power to spare and a higher-resolution screen than the PDAs (personal digital assistants) made by Palm, so why not run a virtual Palm OS within your HP Jornada or Compaq iPaq? In fact, Palm emulators have been around for some time: Palm distributes one itself, for development purposes, and the emulator has been ported to Windows CE.

But that emulator is slow and clunky enough to be impractical to run on a handheld device. Now, however, developers say that they have solved the speed problem, with the help of custom-built emulators and faster processors.

PocketPC developer Conduits says it is developing a new emulator, following on from an earlier, abandoned version called CoPilot. Another developer has demonstrated an alpha version of a custom-built emulator on PocketPC Web site Pocketnow.com.

PocketPC users face the paradox that while they can watch colour video and play 3D games on their machines, the platform lacks the vast library of applications developed for Palm. An emulator would neatly solve the problem, say supporters. It would "fulfill the dream of many Pocket PC users -- to be able to use both Pocket PC OS and Palm OS on the same device," said Elad Yakobowicz of Pocketnow.

Yakobowicz said that the speed of the emulator he used, called PocketPalm, was "better than 'fine'".

Palm has remained tolerant of emulation attempts, but Micheal Mace, Palm's vice president for product planning and strategy, points out that legal complications would arise for a commercial emulation product.

He notes that all the emulators to date, including PocketPalm, merely emulate the hardware platform, and require a copy of the software that powers the Palm device -- a ROM image -- to work. "It is... illegal to distribute the Palm OS ROMs, so it may not be a popular piece of software," Mace told ZDNet UK.

"This is not a threat of legal action, just an observation that there are natural limits on how far something like this could go commercially," he said. "Making your own copy of a ROM is not something the average user could or would do, and nobody can distribute Palm OS ROM images legally."

It is legal for people who have already bought a Palm device to use its ROM image in an emulator, meaning that emulators in their present form could only legally be used by people who already own both a PocketPC and a Palm. "People probably won't use it for more than a curiosity," Mace said.

Software companies have successfully created commercial emulators in the past -- for example, Connectix sells emulators for Windows and Sony's PlayStation -- but such products do not use ROM images, and have never been free of legal wrangling.

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