Palm OS 5 to boast full Web browser

Later this year, enterprise users of Palm Inc. OS devices for the first time will get a fully equipped Web browser with the Palm OS operating system.

A release of the upcoming Palm OS 5 will feature a “traditional” Web browser to enable users to access the whole of the Web, said Steve Sakoman, chief product officer of PalmSource, Palm’s operating system division. PalmSource is licensing the browser from a third party that he declined to name.

Currently, users of wireless Palm devices access specially created Web sites that are part of the company’s network. The information on these sites is formatted using Palm’s Web clipping technology, which eliminates unneeded graphical elements and optimizes the resulting page for the Palm’s small screen. Some Palm OS licensees, such as Handspring Inc. with its Blazer browser, let users access the Internet through a proxy server.

By contrast, Sakoman said Palm OS 5 users should expect a browser more closely aligned with the operating system. “We will be shipping a Web browser with the platform later this year that will allow people to run wild on the World Wide Web. Unlike HandSpring’s Blazer, it will not be proxy-based,” he said.

Palm OS 5 is being hailed by PalmSource executives as the version of the company’s operating system that will “fuse personal and professional users.” For network executives, the new operating system promises vastly improved security and built-in support for IEEE 802.11b wireless LANs. A doubling of screen resolution, to 320 by 320 pixels, will make the Palm more suitable for an array of enterprise applications.

But many of the advanced features will be missing from the first release of OS 5, due this summer. They’ll be included later, possibly by the end of 2002.

For example, the OS 5 security enhancements include support for certificate management and software code signing, which allows software to run only if it has been digitally signed by a known and trusted entity. The technology is designed to prevent rogue software from running. But neither of these changes will be available until some time in the next two years, explained Sakoman.

The initial OS 5 release will offer a VPN option for licensees. Using this option, enterprises could create a secure, encrypted connection between a Palm OS 5 client and a corporate net. This option will be included in a distribution to licensees early in the summer.

Support for the Java Virtual Machine, which will let Palm OS 5 handhelds natively run any Java application, will be available in the operating system later in 2002.

Also missing will be support for the emerging IEEE 802.11a wireless LAN standard, up to 54MB/sec. over 5GHz bandwidth, because of a lack of demand from users, said Sakoman. “Almost all product deployment [now] is on 802.11b, which is support by a lot of established chips,” he said. PalmSource will wait for market demand for 802.11a before it is included in a later version of the platform.

The new operating system will feature a built-in emulator, so users can run current Palm OS 4 applications on new OS 5 devices. If developers have followed Palm’s published set of application programming interfaces for OS 4, applications should run unmodified, said Sakoman. Palm executives estimated 80 per cent of existing programs will run on devices using the new operating system.

Some developers have applauded the new operating system. “Moving to OS 5 will be a quantum leap in functionality,” said Jeff Musa, president of Cutting Edge Software, which makes a range of office productivity tools. “I expect the first version to be directed toward compatibility with existing apps – so for users, OS 5 will not be hugely different from OS 4. But once the operating system is out there, we will be in a better position to enhance our software.”

Cutting Edge Software has had an OS 5 simulator running on a PC for two months and has converted its software to be compatible with OS 5. Based on the experience, Musa said that users initially “will see a hybrid operating system with an updated look and feel, with the added advantage of running existing applications.”

After that, users can expect to see changes that will have a more noticeable impact, such as multimedia support. PalmSource is adding these features in OS 5 by drawing from multimedia functionality offered from Palm’s acquisition of Be OS software from Be, Inc. But, again, some users expect these to arrive later rather than sooner, in what’s coming to be known as version 5.5.

“You have to get to OS 5.5 before the OS really takes off,” said Michael Ashby, director of the International Palm Users Group. “5.0 is more of a transition stage – moving from chip to chip.…I believe 5.5 will be out later this year.”