Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Palm OS on Nokia: Strategy or tactic?

I was stunned today when I saw the press release from Access Company saying that they're giving away a beta version of the Garnet emulator for Nokia's N-series Linux tablets (link).

The Garnet emulator lets you to run most Palm OS applications. So in layman's terms, Access is giving away Palm OS for use on any N-series tablet.

I hadn't previously heard any hints from Access about offering Garnet for other platforms. I thought it was only supposed to be available with Access Linux.

I got excited by the announcement, figuring maybe Access had realized that the real innovation is going to come in the applications layer, not the core OS plumbing. I imagined all sorts of scenarios for what they might be planning:

--How about porting Garnet to some other Linux implementations. Hmm, what comes to mind? Maybe Google's Android? Access would need cooperation from Google in order for the emulator to talk directly to Linux. Would Google help with that?

--There is a need in the market for a mobile application environment that's truly "write once, run anywhere." Might Access intend to use Garnet to compete with Java? That would involve porting Garnet to operating systems other than Linux. How about Windows Mobile and Symbian? How about the iPhone?

--There are several ways Access could make money from this:
  • Give away the emulator in beta but charge for the final version.
  • Give away the emulator on N-series but charge for it on other platforms.
  • Give away the emulator everywhere and make money by selling support software and bundling a software store and taking a cut of the purchase fees for apps (a derivative of the iMode and Acrobat models).

Intrigued by the possibilities, I talked to folks at Access. They shot down most of my speculation. As it was explained to me, this is a tactical move. By porting Garnet to the Nokia tablets they can get some testing for the emulator, and also give a "more interesting ongoing proposition for current developers." (It says something about the momentum for your OS when you feel the installed base of Nokia Linux tablets is an attractive developer target, but I guess you take what you can get.)

Access might try to put the emulator on other standard Linux implementations, but they're very busy working on software for licensees they can't talk about yet, and don't have time to port to anything else, including Android.

That's a shame. In my opinion, there's more of a market for Garnet on other platforms than there is for a Linux phone OS now that Google is giving one away.

But Access believes Google's nonstandard approach to Java and Linux is not going to go down well with the mobile development community. They said Android faces big challenges and a likely backlash.

Okay. I guess only time will tell whether that's justified self-confidence or denial of reality.

Meanwhile, I'll go play with Garnet on my Nokia tablet and wonder about what might have been.

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