New software is big step for Palm -- but can it catch up with Microsoft?
By Peter Svensson
Palm handhelds were something of a revelation when first launched in April 1996 -- small, nifty computers that did a great job of organizing personal data and ran for weeks on a single set of batteries.
Yet the very thing that let Palm succeed where others had failed -- a simple, stripped-down operating system -- is what's been holding it back in recent years.
The operating system and antiquated processors it runs on simply doesn't have the muscle and the flexibility to support wireless network cards, cameras and stereo music.
Palm's new operating system, called OS 5, attempts to remedy that.
I tested one of the first handhelds to offer it, Sony's Clie PEG-NX70V, and found that while OS 5 has inherited some of the faults of its predecessor, it also left at least one of its strengths behind.
In hardware design, the Clie is state of the art. For $600, it should be.
The machine's frosted metal shell opens up much like a laptop, revealing a beautiful color screen in the top half and a small keyboard below.
The screen can be spun around, so that it's on the outside when the Clie is folded back together, turning it into a tablet-style device much like the original Palms. Remember the Transformer toys?
In the hinge is a small digital camera, which takes wide-angle snapshots and even makes small movies. The still resolution, 640 by 480 pixels, is fine for e-mailing but not prints. There's also a slot for a Memory Stick, Sony's memory card format.
Sony has had a hard time getting other manufacturers to adopt its Memory Stick, so it's very surprising to see that the Clie also has a slot for a competing card format, CompactFlash.
However, the Clie's software lets us down -- the slot won't actually work with any CompactFlash card except Sony's wireless network card.
This is quite disappointing, particularly if you have a digital camera that stores pictures on CompactFlash cards, and would like to look at the shots on the Clie's bigger screen.
So the Clie has a wealth of hardware features. What about the software?
At first glance, nothing much has changed. The user interface is similar and the basic organizer functions, like calendar and address book, are unchanged.
The Clie happens to have a keyboard, but to enter text with the stylus, the user needs to write on the screen using Graffiti, a modified alphabet. It's disappointing that Palm hasn't provided an alternative to Graffiti -- the Clie's 200-megahertz processor certainly has the power to recognize normal block letters.
Anyone with a handheld that runs Microsoft's Pocket PC doesn't have to learn a new alphabet to use it, and Palm users shouldn't either. The keyboard makes this less of an issue on the Clie but not all OS 5 Palms will have keyboards, including Palm's own Tungsten, launched this week.
The Clie inherits another clunky Palm feature: the main memory can only handle files stored in Palm's own formats.
That means that you can't store a JPEG image file or a Word document in main memory without first converting them to a format the operating system can handle.
You can store unconverted files on the Memory Stick and access them there. But this seems like a strange limitation for anyone accustomed to moving things between hard drives, CD drives and floppies without having to convert the file format.
It's another win for the Pocket PC, which can handle any kind of file in main memory.
The Palm also lacks another Pocket PC feature: it won't run more than one program at once. This is less of an issue on a handheld than on a desktop computer. But it does mean you can't listen to music while, for instance, reading an e-book.
So some things have been brought along from the old Palm OS that would best have been left behind. But it also retains one of the best things about the old Palm OS, albeit with a significant limitation.
Some of Hobbyists and small software companies have created thousands of programs for the old OS that do everything from medical calculations to maintain golf scores and restaurants lists.
Palm claims that 80 percent of these will work on the new system. This may be true, but the consequences can be pretty severe if the software doesn't work.
Of six programs I tested, two crashed the Clie. The subsequent reboots wiped from its main memory all personal information, which had to be restored from a PC backup.
Lesson: if you're dependent on third-party software, find out if it runs on OS 5 before you take the plunge and buy a new Palm.
The old software has been sacrificed, but what has been gained?
Thanks to the new OS, the Clie's processor is several times faster than the fastest old Palm. This allows the Clie to use its little camera to record video.
But apparently, a fast processor isn't everything.
Browsing a collection of images is a torturously slow affair on the Clie -- it takes a whole second for it to draw each thumbnail image! Clearly, the Memory Stick's ability to store thousands of images is wasted.
A three-year-old Pocket PC device does the same job almost instantly.
Palm OS 5 may be a big step for Palm but it looks like it doesn't go quite far enough in catching up with the competition.
Microsoft is likely to keep nibbling at Palm's market share, at least for high-end handhelds. The Pocket PC system has its own problems, but it is more suited to do-everything gadgets like the Clie.
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