Closing the lid on the laptop

PalmSource chief David Nagel says the days of mobile devices that require 20 IT staff to manage them are over

There are more than 30 million PDAs, smartphones and other devices around the world that run PalmSource's Palm operating system. Manufacturers such as Acer, Samsung and Sony have manufactured hardware using the company's platform, while more than 250,000 software developers churn out around 400 new applications a week for Palm OS-based devices.

At the PalmSource developers conference in Munich this week, David Nagel, president and chief executive of PalmSource, told ZDNet UK about his vision of the future, which includes the death of the laptop, the increasing threat from Linux and why companies should think twice before buying Microsoft's software.

Let's start off with the basics -- what exactly is a smartphone and how does it differ from a standard mobile?
My definition is a phone that has always-on data capabilities -- such as GPRS or maybe UMTS -- so you can receive emails and do instant messaging in addition to the more phone-oriented functions like SMS and MMS. My definition would also include the ability to load third-party applications; an open platform in other words. With many phones today, you buy the handset and you can't extend or expand it. But with a smartphone, you can take advantage of a broad range of applications.

One of the problems is that when you talk to analysts and read newspaper reports you find that people use the term smartphone to talk about products that I would call a feature phone. They have some of those capabilities, but in a closed, fixed way and are not expandable. Over the next few years and certainly over the next decade, virtually all phones will be smartphones.

In Europe, most of the attention in the wireless device area has been focused on Symbian and Microsoft -- why haven't we heard more from PalmSource?
The Europeans have always been ahead of the US in terms of wireless sophistication but our first three generations of smartphone were all based on CDMA technology. We didn't do this deliberately, but in retrospect, the products we are now putting into the European market are very refined. So rather than doing experiments on the European market, we did it on ourselves -- and learned a lot. You will hear a lot more about us in Europe.

The other great thing we have is an enormous range of applications, whereas Symbian has almost none. It has taken us five or six years to get here and there are now 500 or 600 new applications coming out every month. We have a huge lead and it is accelerating. That is one of the great strengths of our platform, perhaps even more than the virtues of our operating system.

You can buy a solution for any possible application -- including consumer-oriented entertainment. There are hundreds of thousands of gaming applications as well as heavyweight industrial strength CRM or ERP enterprise applications, and everything in-between. A little less than a third of the developers that sign up are targeting the enterprise.

There is a real momentum to push Linux onto as many platforms as possible at the moment -- do you see that as a threat down the line?
Not in the short term. Linux's Unix heritage makes it a great platform for servers and is well suited for industrial applications. It is also having some success on the desktop replacing Windows, but even there, the big problem with Linux is that it has either no user interface (UI) or too many, depending on how you look at it -- there is certainly no standard UI. It is something that computer scientists like more than the general public.

The Sharp Zaurus has had commercial success in Japan, but the rest have been niche products and I don't expect that to change because it [Linux] is a very complex operating system. It is also very large -- even in its smallest form. One of the great advantages we have is that we can fit into 4MB of RAM -- it is tiny and does virtually everything the other competitive OSes can do.

Are you trying to position Palm OS as the Windows of the PDA and smartphone world?
I don't believe this market will ever be like the PC market because the industry has found out that although there are some benefits to having a single standard, the disadvantages outweigh those and are not necessary. Open standards seem to work just fine to create an appropriate degree of interoperability. If you have a Symbian phone I can still beam you my business card using the v-card open standard -- that is exactly the kind of thing we should all support.

Why do you think people will buy a PDA rather than a laptop?
The laptop era is over. We are in the post PC era, but that doesn't mean that PCs go away -- we are still in the post mainframe and post minicomputer era and you can still buy them -- but the centre of gravity has shifted to personal electronics.

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. These devices have characteristics that make them more amenable to use for the general public. They are instant-on and do not requite a staff of 20 IT professionals to make them work.

Also, PCs have become so complex -- partly by design. The Microsoft strategy has been to take advantage of Moore's Law by soaking up every additional bit of memory with its operating system. They are now up to tens of millions of lines of code. It's not even clear to me how they do the testing any more -- I think this is one of the reasons why every week there is a new security flaw that is uncovered. It is impossible apparently, to find all those things and to test them. We don't want to go down that path with handhelds. We think these things ought to remain relatively simple.

So why haven't you developed a Palm OS-based competitor to the laptop?
Microsoft and the PC industry have such a lock on the market that it will require a certain amount of courage to bring out a product that is sort of like a laptop, but runs a different OS. It would also be very difficult for us to support large displays and I think it would miss the point of personal electronics. Having said that, a number of us inside the company keep hoping a licensee will show up who wants to make a true notebook. I am hopeful that someday, and maybe someday soon, somebody will show up with such a device. We think our platform is flexible enough to support that kind of device, but it is something for the future.

What are the advantages of using a Palm OS device over, say, Windows Mobile or Symbian in an enterprise environment?
In all its aspects Palm OS is the easiest to use – especially for IT departments. We don't really do a lot of software updates and patches. You buy the devices, install the software and for the most part, the things will work with very little IT involvement -- unless they want to roll out custom applications.

Plus, to develop a commercial application for the Windows environment is an enormous undertaking with multiple programmers, whereas we have a young man at this conference who's 14 years old and has single-handedly developed a very interesting application. Another 14 year old in the US developed an application that has won awards and he is making more money selling his application than his parents.

If that's the case, why are companies still buying Windows Pocket PC devices?
The biggest problem we have is that the IT department assumes that Microsoft is the solution and that Pocket PC is the natural choice -- because it sounds like a PC so it must interoperate. But Palm devices interoperate with Microsoft's desktop devices, by all reports, more effectively than Microsoft's product.

You don't have to buy everything that Microsoft sells; you might get a solution that is better, more cost-effective and one that your customers and end users might actually like better. The least expensive Pocket PC is roughly twice the price of the least expensive Palm-powered device. Give us a chance. Look carefully at the evidence and I think you'll find that the Palm-powered proposition is at least as good and in most cases, better.