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Old 01-13-2008, 12:10 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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Old 01-13-2008, 01:20 PM   #2
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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! .
Well, I can make guesses.

Palm hired a bunch of folks who had previously been involved in BeOS to work on it. The Be folks were apparently tasked with the multi-tasking/multi-threading kernel.

As a bit of irony, the original Palm OS was based on an RTOS kernel called AMX from an outfit called Kadak. AMX offered preemptive multitasking, but Palm's license didn't permit them to expose it. (At a guess, given the hardware of the earliest Palm devices, and the intended usage, Palm decided multi-tasking was unneeded and would have been problematic, so why pay extra to get it?)

Cobalt was reportedly completed, yet even Palm declined to make devices based on it. The best guesses I've heard for why not were performance related. BeOS was intended for multi-media development, and a poor fit as an embedded OS for a handheld platform. Too big, and too slow, requiring to much hardware to perform acceptably.

When Access bought PalmSource, they originally announced plans for a new OS based on an embedded Linux kernel, with Cobalt as the UI layer on top of Linux. Access had acquired a mobile port of Linux in their previous acquisition of China Mobile. Linux would do the heavy lifting of process, thread, and memory management, and applications would talk to Cobalt. Access was aiming at the Indian and Chinese smartphone market.

What they actually wound up doing was implementing Palm OS Garnet in a virtual machine on top of Linux. The Access entry is completed, and being shopped to manufacturers as ALP (for Access Linux Platform). They've announced a partnership with NTT DoCoMo, but no significant design wins yet. Google's Android OS has considerably muddied those waters.

Meanwhile, Access released a beta of the Garnet VM that runs on the Nokia 770, 800, and 810 Internet Tablets as a free download. Early reports are mixed. It apparently runs, and many Palm apps work in it, but it doesn't see expansion cards, and programs using external libraries (like Mathlib, used by just about every calculator application) don't work. Hotsync is also an open question.

Palm has partnered with embedded OS vendor Wind River Systems for their Linux port. We'll see whether they manage a better job than Access.
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Old 01-13-2008, 05:05 PM   #3
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I think there are many "mysteries" about Palm. Like, what where they thinking when they created the Foleo hype - "secret third business", yeah right! Oh and yes, we've seen the Treo - a really nice device. But it was introduced, uhm, when... 2004? Is that all a company, which used to employ 1200 people (before the layoffs last December), can come up with?

It's difficult to understand what went wrong in a company that used to be so successful, with a customer base so strong that it even rivaled that of Apple's.
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Old 01-15-2008, 09:48 AM   #4
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Considering the success of the EEEpc, it's pretty obvious what Palm was thinking. Though, I don't think the Foleo was quite ready for prime time.

Also, man, those phones are ugly. And bricklike. Perhaps that's why they never hit market: it was designed for a hardware platform that was DOA.
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Old 01-15-2008, 09:54 AM   #5
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Considering the success of the EEEpc, it's pretty obvious what Palm was thinking. Though, I don't think the Foleo was quite ready for prime time.
If Palm had thought like ASUS, the Foleo might be out there and selling like hotcakes now.

But the eee is a stand-alone device, and the Foleo was an appendage to a Treo, only really useful if you had one. And if you did, you probably had a laptop, which the Foleo wouldn't replace. The eee, from published experiences of users, largely can.

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Also, man, those phones are ugly. And bricklike. Perhaps that's why they never hit market: it was designed for a hardware platform that was DOA.
Which phones? The Treos? Palm sells a lot of them, and the Treo is the reason they still exist. Making them less ugly and brick like would likely involve a form factor that would make them unsuitable as a PDA, and since the point to a Treo is that it does both, I don't see that sort of change occurring.
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Old 01-15-2008, 04:38 PM   #6
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Which phones? The Treos? Palm sells a lot of them, and the Treo is the reason they still exist. Making them less ugly and brick like would likely involve a form factor that would make them unsuitable as a PDA, and since the point to a Treo is that it does both, I don't see that sort of change occurring.
The prototype Cobalt phones in the pictures above. They're significantly thicker and less attractive than Treos, IMHO.
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Old 01-15-2008, 05:21 PM   #7
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The prototype Cobalt phones in the pictures above. They're significantly thicker and less attractive than Treos, IMHO.
They are indeed ugly and brick like. But don't confuse the form factor of the device with the OS it will run. There is no reason Cobalt couldn't be implemented in a Treo or similar device. My guess is Palm chose not to offer it when it was done due to resource requirements and performance issues. I think it wanted more hardware than Palm was willing to throw at it in terms of CPU speed and RAM.
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Old 01-16-2008, 03:53 AM   #8
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Cobalt is dead. And here is how Palm is trying to get itself out of the dilemma again:

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Those of you wondering how smartphone vendor and handheld organizer titan Palm (PALM) would withstand increasing competition from Apple (AAPL) and the like may be interested to note that Palm Monday unveiled a pink version of its Centro phone/organizer for $99, using service from Sprint (S). (Engadget has a brief write-up of the product.)

Kind of odd to make this momentous product introduction the week after the biggest consumer electronics show on the planet, and the day before Apple’s chief executive Steve Jobs obliterates all memory of any other kinds of products with his talk in San Francisco at the Macworld show. Kind of odd.
http://seekingalpha.com/article/6026...ck?source=feed
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Old 01-16-2008, 04:06 AM   #9
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Cobalt is dead. And here is how Palm is trying to get itself out of the dilemma again:

http://seekingalpha.com/article/6026...ck?source=feed
The Centro has been out for some time. The only new thing here is issuing one in pink, aiming at the teen girl market. The timing against Steve Jobs' announcements is a non-issue.

Palm claims the Centro is doing nicely, thanks. The question, since Palm is trying to position is as an "entry level" device is what they have that might be considered an "upgrade". The answer at the moment is "not much". There are rumors of a new Treo model in preparation that will (finally) include Wifi. We'll see who offers it, as most folks get phones through service providers, and the carriers aren't enthusiastic about a capability that would compete with their data plans
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Old 01-16-2008, 09:51 AM   #10
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They are indeed ugly and brick like. But don't confuse the form factor of the device with the OS it will run. There is no reason Cobalt couldn't be implemented in a Treo or similar device. My guess is Palm chose not to offer it when it was done due to resource requirements and performance issues. I think it wanted more hardware than Palm was willing to throw at it in terms of CPU speed and RAM.
Drivers might also have been an issue. Assuming Cobalt would need drivers to be coded from scratch for the hardware, which I think is a safe assumption, if they only had a narrow set of drivers ready for the OS, that might have turned hardware manufacturers off.
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Old 01-16-2008, 11:46 AM   #11
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Drivers might also have been an issue. Assuming Cobalt would need drivers to be coded from scratch for the hardware, which I think is a safe assumption, if they only had a narrow set of drivers ready for the OS, that might have turned hardware manufacturers off.
By the time Cobalt was finally finished, there weren't that many manufacturers who would license it.

Sony was the major licensee for Palm OS other than Palm, and they had chosen to get out of the PDA business and fold the Clie line. It was profitable, but not profitable enough, and Sony senior management concluded corporate funds could be better invested elsewhere. There were a few smaller niche market players, like Tapwave, whose Zodiac was intended as a combination PDA and handheld gaming device (and who folded in July 2005), Kyocera (who made a cell phone with Palm OS), and Symbol Technologies (who made "ruggedized" devices for things like shop floor control).

Sony's departure from the PDA business prompted the sale of Palmsource to Access -- licensing revenues dropped about 50%, and Palmsource put itself on the block to survive. Palm tried to buy them back, but was outbid by Access. Ironically, Palm originally spun off the OS division as an independent operation in part to placate Sony, who was concerned about the OS in their devices being developed and controlled by a direct competitor in the PDA market. (And, as I recall, in an attempt to boost a lagging stock price.)

Access was interested in in merging Cobalt with a Linux port they'd gotten through acquisition of China Mobile, to have something to pitch to the Asian cell phone market. Their original plan was to make Cobalt the UI layer on top of an embedded Linux kernel. That was apparently a larger chore than they realized when they made the announcement. What they wound up doing was was creating a Garnet Virtual Machine that would run as a Linux task. A free download of a beta of the GVM that runs on the Nokia 770, 800, and 810 Internet Tablets is available from the access site.

Access completed their effort, called ALP (Access Linux Platform), and is shopping it to possible vendors. An agreement of some sort has been announced with NTT DoCoMo (possibly brokered by the Japanese government), but thus far there have been no announcements of actual products that will incorporate it.

Palm, meanwhile, has their own next generation OS development underway, code named Nova, and based on a Linux kernel from embedded OS developer Wind River Systems. In an Investor Day announcement a while back, they made of point of stating they would not license their new OS to third parties. I was amused by this. Announcing that you won't sell what no one has offered to buy struck me as silly.

We'll see what Palm winds up with. Access was recommending 64MB of flash and 256MB of RAM, plus a 400mhz processor, as the minimum configuration needed to run ALP. If Cobalt was in that range when completed, I can see Palm having second thoughts, as that would have been too big for any extant product in their line.

Those waters have been further muddied by Google's Android platform, which is open source and carries no license fees. Any manufacturer that desires can grab it and do a customized version to support their particular hardware and desired feature set.
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