Back in 2005 when Palm-spin-off PalmSource and its primary piece of intellectual property, PalmOS, were acquired by Japanese software developer Access Co., Ltd., it was assumed that the Tokyo-based outfit would spruce up the operating system and begin licensing it just as Palm Inc. once did to rivals like Sony and Handspring. Well here we are five years later and there is nary an Access-powered handset in your favorite carrier’s lineup — although PalmOS continues on life support in the few Centros and late model Treos that still inhabit a dwindling number of shelves. So what happened to the OS that once embodied the very meaning of smartphone?
As it turns out, Access came away from its purchase with good enough intentions. Maker of the popular NetFront mobile web browser, the company was reportedly having difficulty gaining a foothold in Windows Mobile and Symbian devices, so it decided that the best course of action would be to develop or acquire its own operating system. And for several years, Access did indeed keep PalmOS in the spotlight, first rebranding the next-gen Cobalt development version as “ACCESS Linux Platform” (ALP), and actually refining the software all the way to a 3.0 build.
Despite the development work, though, ALP never gained a foothold among carriers nor OEMs, and NetFront continues to be the driving component of Access’ business. Plus, with its recent entry into the Google-founded Open Handset Alliance, analyst Ross Rubin suggests that “particularly with Access throwing it’s support behind Android, we shouldn’t expect too much ALP activity. The company is making a stronger push with its NetFront browser.” Rubin, executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research firm The NPD Group, also notes that this “wouldn’t be the first time a company has acquired a languishing operating system only for it to fade into history,” pointing to Palm’s own purchase of the now-defunct BeOS IP.
As for PalmOS Garnet, the last version of the operating system shipped on consumer devices, it was renamed simply to Garnet OS in early 2007, eliminating the final traces of Palm branding from the dying platform. Palm, of course, went on to develop a completely new operating system known as webOS, which while critically lauded, was not able to move enough units to stave off an eventual acquisition by Hewlett-Packard. Luckily, webOS will live on in some form at HP, be it through smartphones, tablets, or most likely a combination of the two.
The footnote to this story is Access’ recent release of the old PalmOS Graffiti input system into the Android Market, ensuring that at least one feature of the storied OS will live on for some time to come. Of course, now that most handsets feature capacitive screens and generally ship sans styli, it’s not clear how useful the ole’ handwriting recognition system will turn out to be for modern users.