PalmOS for Linux

If you’ve been living under a rock, then you might not have noticed that PalmSource has announced that they’re going to be building a version of the Palm operating system that runs on top of Linux. It’s not completely clear what this means–are they replacing the kernel in PalmOS 6 with Linux, or is this a parallel project, intended to fit into new niches? PalmSource released an open letter to the Linux community that provides a few details:

  • Existing 68k-based Palm apps will work fine.
  • Apps based on the new Cobalt API will need to be recompiled.
  • ARM-based apps for PalmOS 5 aren’t mentioned, it’s probably safe to assume that most of them will break.
  • They’re going to enhance the Linux kernel as needed and contribute their changes back to the community.
  • It’ll be possible to run Linux apps underneath their UI, but if you want a user interface, you’ll need to use their API. In other words, it’ll be possible to run things like Apache and MySQL on PalmOS for Linux, but not X applications.
  • Their licensing model for PalmOS itself isn’t changing–they’re still licensing the whole package to hardware manufacturers and expecting them to port it to their hardware. Presumably, this will become easier when using Linux, because it comes with more drivers and Linux driver programming is a easier skill to hire then PalmOS driver programming.

Of course, that glosses over most of the important issues. Particularly, is any vendor actually going to ship this? Ever? PalmOS 6 (“Cobalt”) was released to manufacturers at the end of 2003, and not only is there no PalmOS 6 hardware available, there aren’t even any rumors of any on the horizon. It’s unclear if PalmOne will ever ship a PalmOS 6 device. It’s entirely possible that the only PalmOS 6 hardware to ship in 2005 will be from afleet of small asian contract manufacturers building for local markets, although Samsung may have something up their sleeves.

Given the glacial rate of PalmOS 6’s adoption, PalmSource will probably be best off focusing all of their attention onto PalmOS for Linux and calling it PalmOS 7, because there’s no way they can carry three software lines–PalmOS 5, PalmOS 6, and PalmOS for Linux. Since current PalmOS 6 applications won’t be binary-compatible with PalmOS for Linux, there’s no way they can call it PalmOS 6.2 and pretend that it’s an extension of the current 6.x line. If they’re going to push a Linux product at all, then they need to push it hard, and they can’t push two “next generation” products that are mutually incompatible.

Which brings up the big question: when will it be ready? After reading their press releases, I don’t thing they’ve been working on this for very long. They certainly aren’t ready to ship anything, and I’d be surprised if they actually have much more then a proof-of-concept port in-house. On the other hand, they have a solid, well-known base to work from, so it’s not like they have to fight with alpha-grade build tools, flaky OSes, and all of the other moving targets that they presumably had to deal with when building PalmOS 6. Porting the current PalmOS to run on top of the Linux framebuffer device shouldn’t be very hard. Adding support for Linux’s network stack might be interesting–as I recall, PalmOS 5’s TCP stack was entirely located in user space, so it the API might not be very close to the traditional BSD socket API, but I don’t really know. Porting 68k apps will be easy; they already have an emulator that runs on Linux and has for years. Adapting it to the new framework shouldn’t require a whole lot of work.

Unfortunately, the one thing that will probably be hardest is the thing that makes PalmOS so unique–it’s filesystem, or rather the lack of one. Traditionally, PalmOS applications don’t really have the notion of saving or multitasking–everything lived in RAM, and switching between programs didn’t involve a whole lot of extra effort. Applications kept their data organized into databases, not files, and they edited the databases directly, without any sort of “save” step. This meant that switching between apps is fast and gives a good user experience for simple applications, but it hasn’t scaled well because it doesn’t provide an easy way to manage block-based storage, like external flash cards or internal hard drives. Instead, PalmOS has had to add an whole extra API for accessing filesystem-based devices, and this has left us in a state where some applications won’t run off of flash cards, and many applications are unable to access data saved on flash cards.

With a virtual-memory based OS like Linux, it’s possible to fake a lot of this with mmap, but that isn’t ideal when you’re dealing with flash cards–it’s easy to wear out most flash cards today by sending them thousands of small writes, and that’s what I’d expect to see when changing a mmaped database. Also, what happens when a flash card is ejected while an application has a file mapped? Linux is never happy when removable devices go away, but causing applications to crash just because the card was removed is seriously user-unfriendly. If mmap won’t work, the big alternative is to copy things to RAM transparently and then copy them back out when done, but that will push the memory requirements up, which will push up costs and limit battery life.

Given all of this, I’d be surprised to see a PalmOS for Linux device before mid-2006, and that’s a long ways away. It’s not clear that the Palm world can wait for another year and a half, falling further and further behind the networking and multitasking abilities of their PocketPC-based competitors. Given that, PalmSource must be feeling a lot of pressure from their licensees to switch to Linux, or they wouldn’t have made this announcement at all.

Posted by Scott Laird Wed, 08 Dec 2004 20:50:17 GMT