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Old 01-13-2008, 01:10 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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Remembering Palm OS Cobalt - Two smartphones that were almost sold

With the discovery of the new code name Nova for Palm's upcoming operating system, it seems appropriate to remember the next generation PalmOS that never saw the light of day. And we also have exclusive product information on some Cobalt based smart phones which were almost released. (Click through to the full article to see the attached product information sheets on a candy bar and sliding qwerty keyboard product we nearly saw!)

PalmSource was the company that controlled the development of Palm OS after being split apart from Palm, the hardware company. That split once made sense because the goal was to allow Palm OS to be on more devices, even those not made by Palm. The reality was not so pretty, when no one wanted to make Palm OS devices, Cobalt never was released but never adopted for devices, and then ACCESS bought PalmSource leaving Palm on its own with respect to a new OS.

But in 2005 everything looked rosy for Palm OS, with the expected release of Palm OS Cobalt. (Palm OS5, now called Garnet, is still the only Palm OS operating system being released on actual devices. Palm OS6 was going to be Cobalt.) Here is a description of Cobalt from PalmInfocenter back in 2004 when it was announced...

"Palm OS Cobalt is a complete rewrite of Palm OS designed to maintain ease of use and software compatibility while creating a foundation for next-generation Palm Powered devices and solutions tailored to the growing needs of the communications, enterprise, education and entertainment markets. Palm OS Cobalt improves compatibility with Microsoft Windows, while offering advanced features including:

* Multitasking, multithreading;
* Memory protection;
* Support for more memory and larger screens;
* Industry standards-based security;
* Extensible communication and multimedia frameworks capable of handling multiple connections simultaneously;"

Some prominent members of the Palm development community expressed the excitement that many of us were feeling in those days. These quotes are not presented here to mock any of these people after the unexpected turn of events, but to simply remind you of the enthusiasm and hope of the day.
  • Alexis Hinds CEO, Blue Nomad
    With the release of Palm OS Cobalt, we believe that PalmSource has firmly ushered us into the 'post-pc' age...

  • August Grasis III, CEO of Handmark
    Our long-term faith in the Palm OS platform is reinforced by the PalmSource commitment to providing a true modern operating system with multithreaded and multitasking in Palm OS Cobalt...

  • Brian Hall, president and CEO of Mark/Space, Inc.
    The powerful processors and rich audio and video capabilities of today's Palm Powered devices make them ideal portable entertainment devices for multimedia...

  • C.E. Steuart Dewar, CEO of Pimlico Software, Inc.
    I view Palm OS Cobalt as a watershed event in the growth of the Palm OS platform as it incorporates two technologies that will be vitally important for the enterprise: flexible, schema-based databases and a truly robust security system... With these technologies in place, developers like Pimlico Software will be able to develop even more powerful applications, which in turn will secure the dominant position of the Palm OS platform in the mobile market.
So why was Cobalt never adopted in real products offered for sale on the market? Well, technically, there were a few prototypes of a working Cobalt phone for sale at the final PalmSource DevCon before the ACCESS acquisition. I would have bought one, but as a Verizon customer I would not have been able to use it anyway, so I settled for a Treo 650 instead. It's mind blowing how long ago Cobalt was ready, and yet there has been very little visible innovation in mobile operating systems in the following years. (But we all know that behind the scenes there has been a lot of activity by ACCESS, Google, Palm and various other groups working on Linux based mobile platforms.)

As far as why we never saw Cobalt, I guess that remains a mystery. Maybe there are readers that can give us some clues. Some commenters have said performance issues were never solved. Some said it just wasn't ready for prime time. Others have claimed that it wasn't a good fit for product developers. And it has even been said that it was just the wrong time to be asking phone makers to adopt another new Palm platform. At any rate, the landscape of the smart phone market has never been the same. Well, in a way, the failure of Cobalt has caused it to remain exactly the same. Palm still sells Garnet (OS5) phones, now alongside Windows Mobile. And everyone is still chasing the Linux dream. It's has been like the dark ages of smart phone platforms. Thank goodness we are finally seeing the signs of a renaissance! .
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