Palm colour screens on their way

Palm CEO remains cagey, but admits licensees and developers have been briefed

The leading maker of handheld hardware and software steadfastly maintains it won't offer a colour handheld until the technology is ready. And, although it is clearly taking steps in that direction, caution could be a wise approach for Palm Computing.

The prospect of colour Palm handhelds is a controversial subject among users. Many would like to have it, if nothing else than for its aesthetic effects. Others, however, are happy with their monochrome Palms and contend that colour is unnecessary for the small screen used by Palm handhelds. It will be an additional cost, they say, and represent too much of a compromise in battery life.

Despite the debate, Palm has spent parts of this week briefing its Palm operating system licensees -- including Handspring, IBM and Symbol Technologies -- and application developers on a forthcoming release of the OS that will include support for colour. The forthcoming release will offer a colour application programming interface (API), which will allow applications to take advantage of a colour screen. The company is holding its annual developers conference this week.

Palm Computing President Alan Kessler wouldn't confirm reports Wednesday that the company is developing a colour Palm handheld to debut next year, but was more forthcoming on the Palm OS. "We do have an operating system release coming in about six months [that will support colour]," he said. "We did talk to licensees and developers so they can start thinking about colour."

Because this new Palm OS release will be available for hardware companies to license, it is also possible that the first colour device based on the operating system may not be a Palm. "We won't do colour until it's ready," Kessler said. Colour being "ready" involves a number of factors. First, developers must write their applications to support colour. Palm is covering this base with its forthcoming colour API.

But there are also hurdles in hardware, Kessler said. In order to build a device, Palm Computing requires high-quality screens. Those screens cost more and consume more power than the monochrome screens used in current Palms. This represents a price/performance issue, which the company needs to overcome. "If you look at the Windows CE devices, colour, if you do it the wrong way, can be a mess," Kessler said.

Talk of the colour device comes after Motorola, the maker of the Dragonball processor used in Palm handhelds, announced a new Dragonball chip that offers improved colour support. The 33MHz chip, called Dragonball VZ, offers chip support for screens with up to 256 colors. That chip will be available in January, according to Motorola.