PalmSource eyes souped-up device size

The company behind the Palm OS is looking to extend its reach beyond conventional handheld computers into the notebook arena

PalmSource is considering throwing its hat into the traditional laptop market by recruiting a partner that will produce a Palm OS-based device with a full-sized keyboard and large screen.

While the idea is at the speculative stage, the remarks of PalmSource chief executive David Nagel at the PalmSource developers conference in Munich on Tuesday show that the company is looking beyond the conventional handheld-computer market -- which it practically created single-handed, and still dominates -- to broader horizons. PalmSource, which controls the Palm operating system, has been criticised in the past for not being innovative enough.

At the conference, Nagel told ZDNet UK that the laptop era is over. "We are in the post PC era now -- PCs have become too complex, partly by design," he said. He said the company is considering bringing in a hardware partner that would produce a Palm OS-based device to rival traditional laptops.

The operating system is already used in wireless devices and smartphones such as the Treo, in consumer-oriented multimedia gadgets from Sony and others, and in higher-end handhelds aimed at executives.

Because Palm OS is relatively small and is stored in memory, it does not require a time-consuming boot-up process. "People recognise that if you have a PDA and you want to make some notes, you turn it on and it is on. You don't have to wait for the two or three minute boot cycles," said Nagel. This kind of functionality combined with the benefits of a laptop-style form factor could create a "true notebook" that would fulfil the potential of mobile computing, he argued.

"We think our platform is flexible enough to support this kind of device," he said. "A number of us inside the company are hoping a licensee will show up who wants to make a true notebook."

The idea of combining the best features of laptops and PDAs has been tried before, with devices such as the Psion Series 7 and the HP Jornada, but have never carved out a significant share of the market. The Series 7 used Psion's Epoc operating system, which has now evolved into the Symbian OS used in smartphones, while HP's devices used Windows CE.

The idea may not have received the right treatment so far, however. James Governor, principal analyst at research firm RedMonk, believes that a notebook-style Palm device would be well received by users. "Vendors may be underestimating demand for laptop-like form factors with alternative operating systems. The notion of being able to open a machine, turn it on and use it immediately is how people want to work," he said.

The Palm OS's ability to function along side Microsoft's Windows is one of its greatest assets, said Governor. "Synchronisation is a crown jewel in the Palm. I have known system integrators to use Palm products for migrating mailboxes from Lotus to Microsoft Exchange because Palm's synchronisation technology is so good," he said.

However, Nagel admitted that whatever devices emerge in the future, it is unlikely to hurt Microsoft or its grip on the market. "This doesn't mean that PCs will go away -- we are still in the post-mainframe and post-minicomputer era, but you can still buy them," he said.

Nagel said that there would be significant technical challenges involved, because the Palm OS is designed for use on small screens. Added to that is the market risk that generally prevents manufacturers from deviating from conventional expectations. It would "require a certain amount of courage to bring out a product that is sort of like a laptop, but runs a different OS," Nagel said.

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