Japanese browser technology developer Access Co Ltd and its subsidiary PalmSource Inc, the ISV responsible for marketing and developing the Palm OS, unveiled the result of a Palm OS-on-Linux initiative.
They are pitching the Access Linux Platform (ALP) as a fully-fledged alternative to Symbian and Windows Mobile 5.0, as an extensible operating system for smart phones. The companies expect to ship a Software Developer Kit (SDK) to licensees by the end of this year.
Since Tokyo-based Access announced it was acquiring PalmSource, headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, the rationale has clearly been to harness the Linux development capabilities PalmSource picked up with its December 2004 acquisition of China MobileSoft Ltd.
The trick, however, was in how to move to something with the look and feel of the Palm OS, not to mention the continued availability of the 25,000 or so apps developed for that platform, while running on a Linux kernel. This, in a nutshell, is what Access and PalmSource reckon they’ve achieved with ALP.
Walter Sun, director of strategic marketing at PalmSource, said ALP combined several features to make it a compelling option for handset manufacturers and carriers.
Firstly, it can be based on a Linux kernel from version 2.6.12 upward from any distribution, which is important because the licensee may bring their own preferences to the choice. A licensee can use an embedded kernel from the likes of MontaVista or Wind River, for instance, or develop their own kernel or get one from their silicon partner, said Sun.
In terms of graphics libraries, ALP comes with the open source GIMP toolkit (GTK+) that underpins the Gnome desktop environment, optimized for a mobile phone.
There are lots of developers who are very familiar with GTK through Gnome and now we can bring them into our ecosystem, Sun said. The inclusion of GTK will also enable mobile operators to do their own branding by injecting their ‘graphic DNA.’
Again, Access and PalmSource have drawn on the open-source community in their choice of a streaming media framework for ALP, opting to include GStreamer, which was also the choice of Nokia in building its N770 Internet Tablet product. This is really the Linux equivalent of Microsoft’s DirectShow multimedia streaming architecture, said Sun, and like that framework, it is modular, and enables you to plug in multiple codecs.
Then comes the key part regarding the Palm OS. Access and PalmSource are guaranteeing that all the messaging and telephony middleware that works on the Palm OS will also work on ALP. Key apps such as the Hotsync and Desktop, as well as all the personal information management (PIM) capabilities that won over a generation of business users before the BlackBerry came along, are all supported on ALP, which will also feature Access’s popular NetFront browser.
We’ve also improved the user interface, the current initiation of which is called MAX, said Sun. MAX is really an application framework that supports both Palm’s traditional two-handed users, but also one-handed, so-called five-way navigation.
Care has been taken to avoid what Sun called the tunnelling application syndrome, whereby a user drills down so deeply into one app that it is difficult to access another without returning to the home page (e.g. when consulting the on-device phone book when in the middle of a voice calls). With mobile phones increasingly being required to multi-task, MAX eases access to background tasks by using icons that serve as access panels to concurrently running tasks, Sun said.
With all these features, Access and PalmSource believe that, with ALP, they are delivering a Linux OS for mobiles that should keep existing Palm developers, as well as the open-source developer community, happy.
We support J2ME and GTK APIs for the open source community, but we’re also providing backward compatibility with all those 68K Palm apps, Sun said, referring to apps developed to run on Palm OS on the Motorola 68K processor. They’ll now be able to evolve through access to the native APIs for ALP. The idea is to combine the ease of use of Palm with the flexibility of Linux, he said.
Access is not the only company developing Linux for the mobile market, of course. MontaVista itself supports Linux in phones, and Norwegian ISV Trolltech markets its own Linux-based platform for mobile devices. We don’t see them as competition right now, however: they just tend to increase the share of the pie for Linux, Sun said.