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Palm OS 5 is an ARM's Length Away

Developers in the handheld sector have had an interesting summer to say the least.

When Palm's software division PalmSource shipped the gold master of its latest operating system (Palm OS 5) to licensees on June 15, many were faced with a conundrum: how to deal with a new ARM microprocessor architecture instead of the DragonBall configurations they've been used to.

The problem, say developers, is that since the operating system is running as ARM-native code, often times it won't allow you to patch traps using legacy 68K code. This is because the mode-switch at each system call would be significant and would wreak havoc with the carefully-crafted "application" versus "operating system" division that the 68K emulator has to maintain.

PalmSource says it has helped with some of the migration in the form of software support and evangelizing.

"With the new architecture, we wanted to make sure the binary software could run on the new class of products," said PalmSource Director of Product Marketing David Creemer. "We give them pretty strict guidelines because the emulator 68K was so old. We have been very pleased. All the applications that I have tried have worked."

Creemer likens the migration to ARM chip architecture to the decision by Apple Computer to switch from a 68K chip architecture to its PowerPC line.

Palm said it will introduce a new mechanism for native trap patching in the next big OS update sometime next year.

One application that is sure to work is Palm's new Web browser, which the company released to Palm OS licensees earlier this week.

But with the first wave of some 15,000 Palm compatible applications debuting by the end of this year, making the bridge between previous versions and OS 5 may keep some developers at arm's length.

Even Palm's hardware division is sending a mixed message. The company confirmed Friday that it will release three new consumer models in October, of which none will include OS 5. One is based on the ARM chip configuration with Bluetooth added in. Another will use always-on wireless GPRS , according to published reports. The PDAs are expected to retail starting at $100.

And while the operating system is closing in on product-related launches, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Palm has been looking to partners like Sony to buy into another round of financing estimated between $50 and $60 million, casting a shadow of concern about future Palm OS updates. Palm said it would use the money to help it complete the separation of its PalmSource division.

In the meantime, some developers like DaggerWare founder Edward Keyes are left in the lurch.

"Well, my main application HackMaster has been explicitly ruled out from being implemented in Palm OS 5. That's a bit of an unusual data point, though... in the general case, it's a fairly typical OS migration: apps which do reasonable things require little or no reworking, while ones that have questionable rule-breaking behaviors need some fixing up. When I tested against prototype hardware at the last PalmSource, even some of my ancient apps from PalmOS 1.0 still ran fine. Mostly it's just that things which before were warnings only the developer saw are now turning into actual errors that users will see, so now we have to pay attention to them instead of just hoping for the best. It's kind of like the highway patrol suddenly starting to use radar traps... the speed-limit signs were always there, and law-abiding citizens always paid attention to them anyway, but now they really matter."

Palm still commands a 75 percent market share in handheld operating systems, but they are facing increasing competition from Microsoft . The world's largest software maker recently signed up Motorola's DragonBall processor family to its list of chips that support Windows CE, Microsoft's PDA operating system.

Palm, meantime said it is pursuing bigger fish on the application side, signing deals with IBM , SAP AG and Siebel Systems .