PalmSource on Tuesday announced their long-awaited Linux-based handheld operating system, the Access Linux Platform (ALP), which will bring full Palm compatibility to handhelds with a Linux core.
"ALP brings the best of all worlds" to the handheld community, with the ease of use of Palm OS and the power and openness of Linux, said Albert Chu, Vice President, Business Development at PalmSource.
Based on the Linux 2.6.12 kernel, ALP contains an unusual number of application programming interfaces (APIs), all tied together by a new graphic interface called MAX. Old-school Palm OS apps will run in an emulation layer, and existing Palm OS developers can continue to use their familiar APIs, Chu said.
Linux developers familiar with the GTK+ interface can write applications using that API. Palm would prefer, though, that developers use the new native MAX API, which offers the most complete access to system services. Java applications will also run on the new devices.
In a way, this approach is similar to Apple's transition to its current OS X operating system, which offered three APIs: Classic (an emulation layer for the older OS 9), Carbon (native code, but designed for compatibility with earlier APIs) and Cocoa (a new, high-level API), plus a Java sandbox.
Linux isn't known for ease of use, but MAX comes with "a lot of user experience guidelines and libraries so developers can create easy-to-use software," Chu said. "We don't want a mobile Linux to be too geeky."
ALP handhelds will come with the NetFront Web browser from PalmSource's new parent company ACCESS, a Japanese firm which bought PalmSource in September, along with a media player based on the Linux GStreamer framework, and messaging, HotSync, PIM and telephony applications, the company said in its announcement.
ALP will also come with the familiar Palm Desktop software for PCs, the company said.
PalmSource is also including and certifying many open-source components, such as the SQLite database engine, BlueZ Bluetooth libraries and the Open Binder inter-process communications framework, the company said.
To some, however, Palm's optimistic statements might have the ring of déjà vu. In 2003, PalmSource released Palm OS 6, which was supposed to be the next-generation Palm OS. Palm OS Cobalt 6.1 followed in 2004. No major device maker picked up either version, and OS 6 died quietly.
Chu says that unlike Cobalt, which was designed by PalmSource and then had to be sold to manufacturers, ALP was "designed in response to market needs" and "is the result of many people talking to the development managers as to what was needed; it's socialized in the industry ecosystem, because ACCESS has relations with handset people, manufacturers and operators."
Chu pointed to ALP endorsements from Freescale, Intel and NEC, but a notable absentee was PalmSource's number-one licensee, Palm.
Unlike other mobile Linux systems, which have hit the market in Asia but not in North America, ALP offers a "complete platform" which will appeal to US operators looking for an end-to-end solution, and tap into PalmSource's existing user base and goodwill.
PalmSource's timeline gives Microsoft more time to dominate the industry, however. PalmSource will release the ALP software development kit by the end of 2006, Chu said, with devices coming in 2007. That's five years since Palm OS 5 hit the market in 2002 with the Tungsten T handheld, and it will have been a full year since PalmSource's major licensee Palm turned to the Microsoft "dark side" with the release of the Treo 700w handheld.
Although Palm OS isn't dead by a long shot – Palm's Treo 650 continues to sell well in North America, and there are rumors of a new Treo 700p running Palm OS 5.4 – a 2007 release puts PalmSource even farther behind Microsoft and Symbian, both of whom have rolled out new handheld operating system releases this year.