Sunday, 26 February 2006

Access Linux Platform and the future of Palm OS

A friend asked me the other day what I thought of Access/PalmSource's recent announcement of the Access Linux Platform (formerly known as Palm OS). I think it's interesting, and there are some hopeful signs. But my main takeaway is that we should probably stop thinking of this thing as the successor to Palm OS, and instead judge it as a new mobile OS based on Linux. Here's why...

When you do a pre-announcement like this, you're usually looking to accomplish a couple of things. You want to make your customers have faith in the future. You want to generate good buzz among the press, analysts, and the online community. And you want to convince possible allies and licensees to work with you. From that standpoint, it looks like the announcement was at least a partial success.

The Linux community is a critical audience for Access/PalmSource right now – one of Access's first goals must be making its mobile Linux the preferred version among the Linux community. Their support will help win licensees. To help make this happen, Access has released some Palm OS code to the open source community, and it has promised to incorporate some Linux standard technology in the new OS.

The reaction on Slashdot wasn't conclusive, but there was a very supportive article on Ars Technica. It said exactly the sot of things you'd like to hear from the Linux community. (If you don't know Ars Technica, it's a very good hangout for technophiles. It often posts much more thorough analyses than most other websites, so it's a very useful resource.)

There were also encouraging noises from parts of the Palm OS developer community. David Beers wrote a nice commentary. David is a prominent Palm OS developer, and although he wants the platform to succeed, he's not at all a fanboy. I'm sure Access wants to hang onto as many Palm OS developers as it can, so posts like this are encouraging.

Analyzing the quotes

One of the traditional elements in a pre-announcement press release is the quotes section, where you get all those stilted quotes from various allied vendors. It usually reads a little like old Soviet propaganda -- and like propaganda you learn more by reading between the lines than you do from the actual quotes.

The game works like this: The company issuing the press release wants quotes from as many prominent companies as possible, and wants the language to be as supportive and specific as possible. The people providing the quotes usually don't want to make too many specific promises, and are often more interested in promoting their own products than in saying anything nice about the actual subject of the press release.

Typically business development people spend a lot of time negotiating these things, down to small details of the quotes.

Access's performance in the quotes game was mixed. The quotes section starts with useful endorsements from LIPS and OSDL, both of which are Linux organizations. I think the placement of these quotes up front shows how much importance Access puts on the Linux community. LIPS (the Linux Phone Standards Forum) consists of France Telecom plus a bunch of Linux and telephony infrastructure companies. OSDL (Open Source Development Labs) is the home of Linus Torvalds and calls itself the center of the Linux community. OSDL's founding members include IBM, Intel, NEC, and HP, so it has a lot of heft. The OSDL quote helps to legitimize Access in the Linux community (I was kind of surprised Access put its quote second on the list).

Wind River was also quoted, which is good because you want the OS to work with standard distributions of Linux. And I was very pleased to see quotes from two mobile operators, NTT DoCoMo in Japan and Telefonica in Europe. Those are very significant because they signal to handset companies that there's a market for devices based on this software.

There are also quotes from several phone component manufacturers – Freescale (formerly Motorola Semiconductor), Intel, Samsung Semiconductor (not the mobile phone group, alas), NEC's semiconductor team, and Texas Instruments. Even though many of the quotes are very noncommittal (basically saying "we like anything involving Linux, and we hear Access is using Linux"), quotes from companies like these are helpful because they reassure potential licensees that a lot of components will be available for phones based on the software.

And there's a quote from Motricity (the parent company of software distributor PalmGear). This seemed strange to me because Motircity doesn't have any direct involvement in the development of the OS. I interpret the quote as a sign that Access was trying to scrape up as many partner quotes as possible.

Who's missing?

There are several glaring omissions from the list of quotes. Before I go into the details, I want to acknowledge that it's easy to read too much into the absence of any particular company from a quotes list. Sometimes there's an innocent explanation – their lawyers didn't like the quote, or an executive who needed to approve it was on vacation. But still, a couple of things stood out to me...

The first is the absence of other operators. Orange in the UK has historically been a strong Treo supporter, and it's owned by France Telecom, which is a member of LIPS. So I was quite surprised that there was no Orange quote. Even more surprising was the absence of any US operators. T-Mobile hasn't ever been warm to Palm OS, and Verizon is very conservative, so I wasn't alarmed that they weren't quoted. But where the heck is Sprint, the original champion of the Treo? And where's Cingular, which has lately been one of the biggest Treo endorsers? I think their absence is not a good sign.

It was also disappointing that neither of the major Chinese phone operators was quoted. Much of the development work on Access Linux is being done in China, and the country is mad for Linux, so you'd think at least one of the operators would be willing to say something positive about the OS.

There's no quote from Monta Vista. That's kind of spooky, since MontaVista and PalmSource had announced plans to work together just last August. I presume the relationship is not going well. I was also disappointed not to see a quote from the CE Linux Forum, an embedded Linux consortium that includes a number of major consumer electronics companies. Access and PalmSource are both members, so you'd think they could have gotten some sort of quote.

But my biggest question was, where are the licensees? Where are Samsung, LG, GSPDA, Garmin, Symbol? Where's Palm? Given all the work that Palm has been doing to reassure its Palm OS-using customers, I was very surprised that there wasn't a quote from them in the press release. It's possible that the licensees didn't want to hint at a pre-announcement of a future product, since that could hurt their current sales. But I'm wondering if there might also be business issues.

Access's announcement said that the new Linux platform will be available to licensees as an SDK (software development kit) by the end of the year. You use the SDK to write applications, but you need the PDK (product development kit) to actually develop a device. As far as I know, Access hasn't even given a public date for the PDK, other than to say that it'll be after the SDK. Unless there's some sort of special pre-availability release to certain licensees, or Access is sand-bagging the date, we're going to see a very long runway until devices are released with the new OS. Palm typically takes a year or more to build an OS into a new device (much of the delay is because they have to rework their proprietary PIM apps to run with the new OS). That might mean you wouldn't see a Treo based on the new OS until late 2007 or maybe even spring of 2008. Perhaps an Asian phone vendor could ship something sooner, but I think you'd still be looking pretty late in 2007.

That's not a life-threatening disaster for Access, since they have deep pockets and can take the time to get the product right. But I think it might be a very significant business problem for Palm. Most of the carriers are now heavily into their migration to 3G. Even six months ago, they were very reluctant to consider adding any non-3G products to their smartphone product lines. There are strong rumors of a Treo 700p, running on Sprint's EVDO 3G network, to ship this summer. I can see that happening since Palm traditionally did its own work to adapt Palm OS to Sprint and Verizon's networks. But I don't know if Palm has the capability to adapt the current version of Palm OS to work with the UMTS 3G standard used by the world's GSM operators. If not, Palm might not be able to ship a Palm OS compatible Treo on 3G GSM networks until the end of 2007. That would have a huge impact on potential Treo sales in Europe, Africa, parts of Asia, and parts of the US.

Some people have speculated online that Palm may be planning to move completely to Windows Mobile. I doubt that's their intent, but given the strong demand for 3G among GSM operators, Palm may not have a choice but to put a lot more investment against Windows Mobile, since it's compatible with UMTS right now.

That's why Palm's silence on the new OS worries me.

So I end up feeling that the announcement was a mixed bag. It looks like Access is assembling a credible (if complex) mobile Linux product. Given the endorsements from Telefonica and especially NTT DoCoMo, I think it has a chance to get some design wins. But I'm very worried about the situation with Palm and the US operators.

Is Access too late?

Not unless you think the phone market is about to standardize down to a single OS, and I see absolutely no sign of that. Most users don't really care what the mobile OS is, they just want a product that works well. So I think the door will be open when Access finishes. But because of the delays, and the uncertainties with Palm, I'm starting to feel strongly that we should view the Access platform not as a direct continuation of the Palm OS, but as a new entrant that happens to inherit some technologies from PalmSource.

I mean this not just in technical terms, but in business terms. If you view Access Linux as a continuation of Palm OS, you immediately notice that a lot of key Palm Economy players haven't lined up to endorse the product. It's pretty disturbing. On the other hand, if you view Access Linux as a new mobile OS based on Linux, it's doing extremely well to have so many companies endorsing it when it's still 18-24 months away from shipping in phones. The future's pretty bright for something, but I'm not sure we should think of that thing as Palm OS.

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