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Palm to tap colour for next release

The days of the colourless Palm screen are coming to an end. Sources expect hardware and an upgraded OS in February

Palm Computing is bringing colour to its world. The company, soon to be spun off from 3Com as Palm, is expected to begin shipping the latest version of its Palm operating system, as well as the first colour Palm handheld, in February.

Sources said Version 3.5 of the Palm OS will be preinstalled in some handheld devices, such as the Palm Vx, even before the new OS is formally launched in February or early March. Palm OS 3.5, released to developers last October, is significant to Palm users because it is the first Palm OS to support colour.

Aside from colour, the new OS includes many smaller enhancements, including subtle user-interface changes. One source familiar with the OS said Palm may be taking advantage of the full 4-bit depth of the screens in its newest devices to a provide deeper and more crisp -- almost 3-D like -- quality to the way icons are displayed.

Other enhancements include a new "What's going on today" view in the Palm calendar application.

When combined with new device hardware, which could include faster Motorola DragonBall processors, the OS is "noticeably faster," said another source.

Power-management capabilities added The new OS also includes power-management enhancements that should help maintain decent battery life for even the more power-hungry colour devices.

A device called the Palm IIIc will likely be Palm's first colour handheld. It is also expected in February, sometime after Palm Computing becomes Palm in an initial public offering.

While Palm has introduced colour support into its OS and applications, it is now up to developers to make the best use of the expanded palette. Palm has some 6,900 software developers.

Some vendors will have support for colour at the launch of the new OS and Palm IIIc device. Others, however, may wait to determine the viability of color devices.

"I would think for most applications (developers) will integrate some basic rendering of color as soon as possible," said Jill House, industry analyst at International Data Corporation (IDC) in Framingham, Massachusetts. "Some will come out at launch, ... others as they see how popular the devices are."

Color's popularity with the public isn't a given. Many Palm fans will purchase the new devices as soon as they come out, but colour just for the sake of having colour may not sell well. New users will likely compare the Palm IIIc with the similar, but lower cost, Palm IIIe and the much sleeker Palm V devices before making a buying decision.

"All things being equal, ... unless you had a need for colour I'm not sure it would be a selling point," House said. "It's just one factor in an equation. I'm not convinced it's going to override price and size and battery life."

At least not for awhile. Palm's monochrome devices will continue to do well at least through the end of the year, House said.

Eventually, "I think colour is going to make some strides to make up about half of the market," she said. "I don't expect it to take hold ... until there are applications that really capitalise on colour, and until the OS takes full advantage of it."

Once they begin shipping, the colour Palms will need to contend with a forthcoming release of a new user interface for Pocket PC (formerly known as Palm-size PC) from Microsoft. The release, known by the code name Rapier, is geared for greater ease of use -- requiring only a single "tap" to select applications -- and for multimedia support, including Microsoft's eBook reader and an MP3 audio player. Rapier is expected in April or May.

Palm Computing is also expected to reduce prices on its existing Palm hardware before announcing its Palm IIIc.

Once that device is shipping, Palm will likely make the Palm OS 3.5 available as a download for other Palm devices.

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