Mobile Platforms: Palm OS -- not the best for the multitasker

Mobile managers face a tough choice when weighing which mobile platform or operating system to deploy. We've assembled a team of experts and asked them to weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform to help you choose the one that's right for your company. In Part 3 we examine Palm OS. Experts say its users are loyal, but Palm OS's single-tasking model and uncertain future are causes for concern.

Mobile managers face a tough choice when weighing which mobile platform or operating system to deploy to mobilize the workforce. There's BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian, Linux and J2ME. How do they choose? Which platforms perform which functions well, and where do they fall short?

We at SearchMobileComputing.com want to make that choice a little easier. We've assembled a team of experts and asked them to weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform. On the fourth Wednesday of each month, we'll present the pluses and minuses of a different platform. With this series of stories, we hope to help you choose the platform that's right for your company and help you cast aside those that may not fit your needs.

Part 3: Palm OS. Palm makes a fairly popular operating system. And as Palm's Treo smartphones continue to sell like hot cakes, it may become more widely used. As an operating system, it's pretty simple to master, but the platform's inability to multitask may prompt some users to close their fists.

Starting in the mid-1990s with Palm Pilots, the Palm operating system, Palm OS, took hold with the grip of a pro wrestler. It spawned with it a community of "Palm loyalists," who to this day continue to use the platform.

But something isn't quite right. Some industry experts suggest that the Palm OS is on the cusp of change, but what that change is remains somewhat unclear. Still, many agree that something needs to change to keep the Palm OS relevant in a world where Microsoft has its Windows Mobile, and Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) continues to gain with its BlackBerry.

So far this year, the Palm OS hasn't had the greatest track record. According to Gartner Inc. principal research analyst Todd Kort, the Palm OS has started to slip.

In the first quarter of 2006, the Palm OS had 2.2% of shipments in the smartphone market, coming in fifth overall behind Symbian, 64.8%; Linux, 26%; Microsoft, 4%; and RIM, 2.9%. In the PDA segment, Palm OS placed third, with 13.4%, behind Microsoft, 52.8%; and RIM, 25.4%. Overall, Palm OS had a 4.1% share of the combined PDA and smartphone market in the first quarter of 2006. Palm OS ranked fifth overall behind Symbian, Linux, Microsoft and RIM.

Now, Palm offers devices that run either on the company's own operating system or on Windows Mobile. According to Jack Gold -- principal and founder of J. Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based research, analysis and advisory firm -- it's Palm's attempt "to cover all sides of the marketplace."

The Good

The Palm OS, by many accounts, is fairly simple to learn and easy to use. Gold said that the intuitive user interface provides easy navigation, which could help the Palm OS one-up Windows Mobile, which is known as being a bit complex.

"It's not Windows," Gold said, pointing out one of the Palm OS's strong selling points. "It's a pretty good user experience, especially if you're not Windows inclined. It's much easier to learn than Windows Mobile."

Being user-friendly and integrating thousands of PIM applications also makes Palm a contender, said Daniel Taylor, managing director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance.

"The operating system is especially strong for PIM," he said. "It looked like the Palm OS was on the outs, but recent device shipment numbers from Palm have turned that around."

Palm differentiates itself from other mobile operating systems in that it uses touch-screen technology, but it also makes it simple to move through menus and options with as few steps as possible.

"They paid a lot of attention to minimizing the number of clicks [to navigate] … the menuing system is very thought out," Gartner's Kort said, adding that the intuitive user interface makes a Palm OS device a "good way to get your feet wet as a first device."

For mobile email, Palm is also a solid choice. It can sync with Exchange and is open to email from a host of other vendors, most commonly Good Technology's Good Mobile Messaging, formerly GoodLink.

"The Palm OS is well supported by leading enterprise mobility platforms like GoodLink, OneBridge and Afaria," Taylor said, "so IT departments can readily support users who want the strong PIM functionality, competent mobile email, and a wealth of third-party applications that come with the Palm OS."

It is also a fairly simple operating system to support for large organizations.

"I don't know of any major stumbling blocks," Gold said.

The Bad

What is really holding Palm back, Kort and Gold agreed, is its single-tasking model. The Palm OS does not allow for multitasking, which many enterprises could find a great hindrance.

"In general, the Palm OS does not support multitasking," Kort said. "It's a single-tasking model, built on an older architecture. What they really need is a whole new engine."

For example, if a user is working in an application and the phone rings, the application has to be closed down in order to take the call.

"A lot of enterprises have decided they don't want that," Kort said. "Over time, the operating system has gotten the appearance of being well out of date."

And though thousands of smaller, productivity-boosting applications work on the Palm OS, the system is not necessarily designed to support larger, corporate applications.

"I don't see a lot of companies choosing to use the Palm operating system for the applications," Gold said. "It's not a great application environment if you're going to deploy corporate apps."

Later, Gold added: "As an operating system, it's a little on the brain-dead side. It's not all that rich."

While the Palm OS may be losing traction among large corporations, Kort contends, "for a consumer, it's still a very good choice."

Palm also falls a bit short on the security side, Kort believes.

"Out of the box, natively, it falls short on security," he said, but add-ons can make it better. Still, on the security side, it's "nowhere near what RIM offers."

Gold agreed. RIM offers end-to-end encryption and built its platform around security. Palm OS was built, and security was wrapped in later.

"Stuff you store on a Palm is out in the open unless you encrypt it, but how many people do that?" Gold said. "It's gotten better over time, but it's not hard to break into a Palm device and reach the data. Security needs to be a key criterion going forward. They're making it better, but they have a long way to go."

The Indifferent

There is also some uncertainty about the future of the Palm OS because its parent, PalmSource, was acquired last year by Chinese mobile technology maker Access Co. Ltd. The acquisition is supposed to bring Palm into the Linux mobile market.

"The question becomes: Does Access take what they got with the Palm OS and not upgrade it properly?" Gold asked.

Though it remains to be seen what the acquisition will bring about, Gold said that Palm users and would-be users may want to exercise caution going forward.

"It's not clear yet exactly what that's going to mean," he said.

Kort elaborated, noting that "Palm really needs to think strongly about going in the direction of Linux. Windows is not going to save them."

Regardless of a possible new direction, there are still a number of users who have a loyalty to Palm and will continue to use it either way.

"The Palm OS will do well for the next few years because of the legacy," Gold said.

Taylor added: "The Palm OS clearly has a loyal following."

There are some complaints, however, that as a platform it has a past of being "quirky," Gold said. There have been instances of devices having to be rebooted because the OS freezes, but, he added, that's gotten a little better.

"I don't hear a lot of complaints [anymore]," Gold said.

The Conclusion

Overall, Palm OS is simple to use and, aside from the single-tasking model, has decent functionality.

"The average person would probably find it quite acceptable," Kort said. "It's a little more tricky in a corporate environment. The Palm OS is going to survive -- but Palm as a company needs to be looking around for a new platform to jump onto."

That quandary, Kort said, has Palm OS in a position right now where it may be better suited to the consumer market, not the enterprise.

"The Treo 700p and 650s are selling into the traditional base of Palm users," Kort continued. "New users aren't picking up on it."

Still, Gold says that he doesn't see any key differentiators that can push Palm OS to the top of the heap.

"From a functionality perspective, there's nothing Palm does as an operating system that the others don't," Gold said. "Palm's biggest challenge over the next few years is can [it] keep up with the next version of Nokia with Windows Mobile?"

This article originally appeared on SearchMobileComputing.com.

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