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Palm OS Programming, 2nd Edition by Neil Rhodes, Julie McKeehan

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Effortlessly Connects to a Desktop Computer

Another one of the key features of a handheld is that it does not function independently. People want to use it in conjunction with their desktop computers. They also want it to work perfectly and easily.

Indeed, one of the necessary features that makes the handheld so useful—its small size—means that it simply can’t do some tasks or have some hardware features. As a result it is absolutely dependent on a desktop computer to provide what it lacks.

What Palm OS Devices Don’t Have and Why

Almost more important than what Palm OS devices have is what they lack. Palm OS devices do not have keyboards, full text recognition, or powerful processors.

Now, reflect for a moment on why this is so. Adding any of these features requires changing the magic combination of speed, size, and price that has made the Palm devices so popular.


Palm has announced that the next version of the OS (we’ll call it 5.0, even though it may not actually ship as that number) will work on ARM processors, rather than the current 68K processors. This will provide more processing power. ARM processors, although somewhat more expensive than the current 68K processors, are very battery-efficient.

A Keyboard

Designing a device with a keyboard is a double problem: it radically affects the size and it changes the types of things a user will attempt to do. If there is a keyboard, a user will expect to be able to enter text easily. But in order to handle extensive data input, you need a system that can support that type of activity, a processor capable of handling it, and screen that is big enough and clear enough to display it. Once you have both a system and a fast enough processor, the price has crept so high that users go get laptops instead; for just a few dollars more, they get a lot more capability.

By removing both the keyboard and any real way of handling text input in quantity, Palm kept its focus on the kind of device it was providing. Palm’s strategy was to deliberately create a device that was an extension of a desktop computer. Think of the handheld as a “tentacle” (using the metaphor of the creator of the Palm, Jeff Hawkins) reaching back to the desktop. It is a window onto the data that resides on the desktop. Having this sort of window is so useful because it can be taken anywhere. Palm figured out that to be taken anywhere, it has to fit almost anywhere. So, absolutely, positively no keyboard.

Text-Recognition Software

Besides removing the keyboard, Palm did away with supporting true text recognition. Palm knew from Apple Computer’s hard lesson with the Newton (painfully broadcast across the pages of Doonesbury comic strips) that the recognition algorithms were just not good enough five years ago (and still aren’t today). Apple ended up with frustrated people who spent far too much time trying to get their Newtons to recognize what they wrote. Instead, Palm made the nervy choice to ask users to spend a few minutes learning the stroke requirements of Graffiti.

No doubt Apple had many focus group meetings where it asked legions of users the question, “Is it important to you that a handheld device be able to recognize your handwriting?” If faced with this question, users probably universally said yes, it was very important. Palm decided to figure out what users actually wanted instead of what they said they wanted—not always the same thing. Users, it turns out, would rather spend a few minutes learning to write a “T” like "7" than spend three times as much money and have a device take a staggeringly long time at even the most simple tasks.

A Powerful Processor

Palm OS devices run on small, inexpensive processors (competitors would, no doubt, call them antiquated, twerpy little processors that can’t do anything fast). Even though the newest Palm OS devices have more memory, the processor still remains quite diminutive and the clock speed is downright pokey (see Table 1-5). This is especially true when you compare a Palm OS device to a Pocket PC device, which is built around the ARM processor (an order of magnitude more CPU power than in current Palm OS devices).

So, let’s examine the implications of this one difference, a fast versus a not-so-fast processor. First, there is the expense issue—fast processors cost more (result—Pocket PC devices are double to triple the price of Palm OS devices). Second, two simultaneously important and disastrous things happen when a faster, more expensive processor is thrown on a handheld. Since the processor is more expensive, device makers feel compelled to add additional features to justify the cost. Because they can add more features, device makers also end up tasking the processor to its limits with greater software and hardware challenges. Just as you would expect, Hewlett- Packard, Compaq, and Casio have stepped up to this challenge by offering customers their newest Pocket PC devices with great backlit color screens, lots of built-in software that allow the user to do everything from surfing web pages to editing and creating word processing documents, sending email, playing MP3s, and sucking the battery dry before the sun goes down. Yep, these devices have itty-bitty battery life. But this gets into the next important feature: “works great and is simple to use.”


This also raises the interesting issue of the well-known fact that the Palm is moving to the ARM processor in its next device transition (slated for 2002). We predict they will solve the battery problem—you won’t see battery-sucking devices like the current crop of competitors.

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