StrongARM muscles in on PDA turf

Microsoft’s latest mobile operating system has changed the dynamics of the PDA chip market, according to the Meta Group, which could lead to a Wintel win in the PDA space.

Microsoft’s Pocket PC 2002 requires an ARM-compatible chip as the engine and requires flash memory in each device for OS upgradeability, a feature that used to be optional.

The StrongARM technology was jointly developed by Digital Equipment Corp. and Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) in the U.K. (Intel acquired Digital’s chip manufacturing facilities in 1997.)

In addition to the demands of the Pocket PC OS, Palm’s transition to ARM chips could make Intel the biggest winner of all. That’s because it’s the strongest player in the ARM and flash areas with its StrongARM chipset, says Jack Gold, vice-president of mobile and pervasive computing at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group. All six vendors – Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Symbol, NEC, Casio and Toshiba – are using Intel’s chip in their new Pocket PC PDAs, Gold says. He expects to see Palm-based devices on StrongArm chips in six to nine months.

“I think Intel is going to be really well positioned in this whole pervasive space going forward,” says Gold. Motorla is also moving to ARM, “so ARM wins no matter what you do.”

Palm was able to win a large chunk of the enterprise market because it offered a simple device, Gold says.

“What’s happened is people have gone upscale, and they’ve tried to do more and more with these devices. Palm hasn’t really kept up and Pocket PC has a lot more capabilities.”

The StrongARM platform and flash memory that enables OS upgradeability will have the most benefit in the enterprise space, says Gold. “Any time you want to build a device that has upgradeability it’s got to have flash,” says Gold. That upgradeability is important for enterprise users who aren’t looking to throw away their devices every nine to 12 months.

Flash memory also enables PDAs to be customized, and information doesn’t get lost when the device’s battery dies. “In higher end enterprise space, they’re all going to flash.”

Michael Moskowitz, president and general manager of Palm Canada in Toronto, says there will be a new set of Palm devices that are much more multimedia-centric, and “can do the heavy lifting that our wireless infrastructure requires.”

Palm has already demonstrated its OS operating on an ARM chip and is preparing to port existing applications to an ARM platform, says Moskowitz. “It’s a pretty big job. We don’t want to isolate our current customers.” Palm also doesn’t want to alienate its 175,000 developers who have contributed to its 12,000 applications.

Moskowitz says Palm is not in a position to declare a winner in the chip marketplace. “We’re more interested in … what innovation will come out of the ARM processor and ARM development.”

Doug Cooper, Intel country manager for Canada, won’t pick a winner in the Microsoft versus Palm battle, but says the chipmaker is always seeking the broadest support for its technology.

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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