Sony works with Palm on multimedia

The Clie handheld maker is hoping to build its multimedia technology into Palm's next operating system, potentially creating an early market for Palm OS entertainment applications

Sony says it is working with PalmSource, which handles Palm OS development, on integrating the features from its high-end range of handheld computers into the next Palm operating system.

The move could encourage developers to begin taking advantage of advanced features such as high-resolution screens and multimedia before they are available in the core Palm OS.

Sony has taken the lead with multimedia devices running the Palm OS in its entertainment-oriented Clie handhelds, but uses its own application programming interfaces (APIs) to support features not yet built into Palm OS. Palm OS 5, the next version, will run on more powerful processors and support more advanced features, but will not necessarily support software written to take advantage of Clie's capabilities.

A Sony representative at this week's PalmSource developer conference in London said the company is working with Palm to integrate APIs for high-resolution screens and different screen sizes into Palm OS 5, but warned, "we can't say yet whether that will happen."

At the conference, Sony demonstrated the Clie PEG-NR70V, a handheld that has shipped in Japan and the US and will launch in Europe at the beginning of June. The NR70V is Sony's latest attempt to extend the Palm platform's entertainment capabilities, with a 65,536-colour 320 x 480 display, digital music player, movie player, built-in still camera and other features. The device has features more familiar from mainstream consumer electronics, such as a camcorder-like rotating LCD and a remote control that is compatible with Walkman music players.

It is the first to use the 66MHz DragonBall Super VZ processor, a step up from the 33MHz DragonBall found in most Palms. This boosts the video playback functionality, but also allows for the handwriting recognition area at the bottom of the screen to be "virtual", disappearing in some applications to allow the use of the full screen.

Sony is taking pre-orders for the device on its Web site, selling it for £449.30 inc. VAT in the UK and 699 euros in the rest of Europe. The US price is $599.

At the moment, most Palm applications will only use the top 320 x 320 area of the Clie's screen, and will also appear somewhat blocky, since they are designed for the lower-resolution screens used by most colour Palms. To make use of the higher resolution and larger size of the NR70V screen, programmers have to use an API made freely available by Sony. And while developers can be assured that any future Clies with large screens will use the same API, the application might have to be rewritten to take advantage of Palm's own high-resolution API in OS 5.

However, Sony emphasised that adding the functionality is painless. "One developer tried his application on the NR70V in the morning, and then went away and got the API from Sony's Web site. He had altered it to work with the larger screen by the afternoon," said a spokeswoman.

Applications made for the larger screen simply add a button that hides the Virtual Graffiti area.

Because Palm OS 4 itself is written for a lower-resolution screen, the icons on the application launcher appear blocky when viewed at full size, although there is an option to shrink them. A Sony spokesman said that third-party applications are already available to customise the device's appearance, including a replacement application launcher that uses high-resolution icons taken from Palm OS 5.

There are also "theme" applications available to add background images and change the colour scheme of the application launcher, the spokesman said.

He responded to US reviewers' criticism of the NR70V's bulk by pointing out that the screen is about 30 percent larger than those of other Palms. "Even the iPaq doesn't have a screen like this," he said. The NR70V is about the same thickness as Sony's PEG-N770, which also features a high-resolution colour screen, but is a bit longer because of the built-in camera.

The spokesman also pointed out that the built-in keypad means users don't have to carry a separate clip-on keyboard. "We have made this an all-in-one device," he said.

Sony said it will not bring out a European model of the NR70, which is a NR70V minus the camera.

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