Linux and Palm Pilots

Did you know that Palm Pilots play well with Linux? Jack Wallen, author of "Setting up your Palm Pilot with Linux via GNOME," answers questions about how you can use Linux to get the most from your Palm Pilot.

TechProGuild held an online chat on Oct. 11, 2000, in which Jack Wallen, Jr. discussed Linux and Palm Pilots. Here's the edited transcript from that chat.

Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.

MODERATOR: Hello, all. We'll begin as soon as our esteemed speaker, Mr. Jack Wallen, Jr. arrives. Jack will be discussing Linux and Palm Pilots.

MODERATOR: Hello, Jack. Good to see you. A couple of brief announcements before Jack gets going...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Hey gang! Tired of Windows being the only platform to connect your pilot to? Well ‘harrumph’ no more!

MODERATOR: First of all, our prizes for this month are a TechRepublic GPS and a digital clock—really nice. This will go to the monthly winner of the October Guild Meetings.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: First of all, I want to open up the floor to any questions...

MODERATOR: Finally, Oct. 19, 2000, will be the last Guild Meeting. Here are the details: Based on member feedback, the TechProGuild site has been updated to ensure you enjoy the access you need to IT information and resources. You no longer must wait a few days for a regularly scheduled Guild Meeting to find answers to your technical questions. Just post your questions in our Technical Q&A section. You can also start or join a discussion in progress by visiting our Discussion Center 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: All Linux—All Day! ;-)

MODERATOR: TechProGuild will continue hosting regularly scheduled Guild Meetings through Oct. 19, 2000. Keep your eye out for specially scheduled Guild Meetings in the future. On behalf of the TechProGuild staff, I want to thank you for your participation in the regularly scheduled Guild Meetings, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the new features.

HREGAN011: Hi Jack.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Hello hregan011!

MODERATOR: Thanks to all our members for their support.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Any questions regarding Linux?

In support of Palm Pilots
MODERATOR: So, Jack, what's the deal with Linux & Palm Pilots?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: The deal is—they work great!

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Enough said. Thank you. Peace. Good night. ;-)

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Just kidding—on the good night part.

HREGAN011: Is there supporting software like Windows?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Yes there is a great deal of support for the pilot in Linux. Each of the Desktop Environments (DE) has its own set of tools.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Both GNOME and KDE have their own offerings. There is a command line set of tools and a java-based set of tools as well.

HREGAN011: Okay. Where would you be able to download them?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Good question hregan.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: For GNOME you are looking at Gpilot. This application comes rolled into the latest versions of GNOME. There's no need to get any other software. If any of you are using GNOME right now, you can open up the GNOME configuration tool (it has the little toolbox icon in the panel).

HREGAN011: Do you know of any support for Solaris?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: You'll notice, as you scroll through the options, a menu (and submenus) for Pilot configuration.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Not that I know of. Although I bet the command line tools might work. That's a complete guess, of course. And the java tools might work. MIGHT.

HREGAN011: As a command line, you would set it up as a serial device?


SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Good transition ;-)

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: The first step for setting up your pilot is to set up the device itself. We all know how device names are in Linux. Serial port 1 is labeled ttyS0, serial port 2 is ttyS1. Once you know which port you are plugging your pilot into, you need to run the command (as root):

HREGAN011: I am fairly new to Linux; I have been studying Solaris but understand they are similar, and I do have one Linux box to try it out on.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: ln /dev/ttyS* /dev/pilot (where * is the number of the serial port)

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: This creates a link from /dev/pilot to the serial port.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Now you need to set up the permissions so that users can read and write with this link. Although this can be considered a security issue it's the simplest way...and you're not going to be syncing your pilot to your server anyway. ;-)

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Run the command (again as root):

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Chmod 666 /dev/pilot.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: (Since it's close to Halloween I thought I'd use that form) ;-)

Run, Linux, run
SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Now you are ready to rock! The next step will depend on which set of software you are using. So let's talk about the pros and cons of each software suite. Obviously having to type hinders the command line suite. No pointing and clicking here.

TECHIEKY: What's the difference between Linux and UNIX?

HREGAN011: Haha.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: The diff between Linux and UNIX? Well Linux is a variant of UNIX. You could say that Linux is a child of UNIX.

HREGAN011: Isn't UNIX more scalable?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: The biggest difference, on the surface, is that UNIX is much more large scale.

HREGAN011: But a lot of vendors are going to Linux, IBM, Compaq, Dell, etc.

TECHIEKY: Does it take a lot of CPU power?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Whereas Linux is developing into a desktop OS and a small to medium sever platform, UNIX is bound (by many reasons) to larger scale needs.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Does Linux take a lot of CPU? Or UNIX?

HREGAN011: Linux seems to run well without a lot of CPU power.

TECHIEKY: Oh, Linux.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Linux can run on anything from a 286 up to IBM's AS/4000.

TECHIEKY: So, like, what would be the, um, minimum setup for Red Hat 6.2?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Okay what DEs are people using? GNOME? KDE?

HREGAN011: You can run a Linux firewall on a 486, and it runs great.


TECHIEKY: Is that a separate firewall for a server or the same machine as server/firewall?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Depends on what you want to use it for. Desktop: I have a Pentium pro 200mmx with 32 megs of RAM.


TECHIEKY: Is that for a graphical desktop?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Server: that depends on how large you are going. I have a very stable ftp server running on an old Compaq 200 with 32 megs of RAM. I've set them up on 386s, and they work fine.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: GNOME and KDE are graphical environments for the desktop.

TECHIEKY: But for your specs—are you running in console?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Oh, that 200 mmx is running the latest GNOME...and does it well. The only machines I'm running in console are my servers. All my desktop machines run some pretty heavy hitting GUIs.

HREGAN011: I have a 200 mmx running netmax, runs great too.

TECHIEKY: Is netmax your firewall, hregan011?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: I recommend, if you have a low-end machine, that you run on a window manager alone and skip either GNOME and KDE. Much smaller footprint.

HREGAN011: Firewall, dns dhcp web server, it handles a lot of different things.

Get yourself connected
SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Okay for those of you using GNOME, you're in luck. The Gpilot suite is the best pilot suite I've seen.

TECHIEKY: That's great! How many connections?

TECHIEKY: Or users...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: It handles all the conduits, configures easily, has solid drag and drop capabilities, and a good daemon.

HREGAN011: Not sure off hand. I believe it’s

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Has anyone tried using the Gpilot applications?

HREGAN011: Is Gpilot close to the Windows version in appearance?

HREGAN011: No, Jack.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Not in appearance. It has a very strong GNOME feel. In fact it's pretty much a standard part of GNOME now.

TECHIEKY: I haven't tried Gpilot yet.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: The configuration of the Gpilot application is taken care of strictly through the GNOME configuration tool. What you will also notice is you can add gpilot (that's the gpilot daemon) to your panel. This is a small 'yin-yang' looking icon that allows you to stop/start the daemon, drag files (and utilities) to the pilot for syncing and installing, as well as configure your pilot link settings.

JCARLISLE: What's Gpilot?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Gpilot stands for GNOME Pilot. It's the suite of tools available for the Palm Pilot so it can sync with the GNOME DE.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: One of my favorite aspects (and one that I always am able to sell the Linux user on) is that Gpilot writes to ASCII files so, within your Linux OS, you can edit your calendar, address book, memos, and so on with a simple text editor. Once you understand the format...which is very simple.

JCARLISLE: There are some Palms that synch using a USB port rather than a serial or parallel port? What do you do with those under Linux?

TECHIEKY: In fact, what is the USB support under Linux?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Well that's an issue. USB support is just now showing up in Linux. With Red Hat 7 there is now solid support for mice and keyboards. However, until the 2.4 kernel becomes official, you're out of luck. Now you could get brave and compile a 2.4 kernel, and you might get USB to work with your Pilot. But for now we're stuck with serial devices.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: It's only a matter of time.

JCARLISLE: Oh...Are there tools to sync CE devices with Linux?


SPEAKER_JWALLEN: I don't believe there is anyone in the Linux community willing/wanting to port the CE software to Linux. ;-) I could be wrong, but I think that (in a rather Microsoft-ian way) the Linux community has adopted Pilot as the standard...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Back to the ASCII aspect. When you open up, say, ~/MyPilot/Address.gcrd (the addressbook) you'll see entries like: FN: Jack

JCARLISLE: You would think that a minority operating system would accommodate other minority operating systems...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Which would be First Name.

HREGAN011: CE is being replaced by Windows PC anyway. A lot of people went to Linux to get away from Windows instability...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: You would think...And not only that but also getting the CE devices to work the other way would be nearly impossible. Plus the support for the platform is horrible.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: So with the ASCII aspect you can edit your files without having to open up the GUI. This has actually come in handy for me. On a laptop when the battery is low, dropping out of GUI and into console gives you enough battery life to finish inputting those contacts. Happened to me at Linuxworld. ;-)

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: With the other suites—most all files are binary so they cannot be altered via text editor.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Say that to the old school Linux user and watch them run screaming. ;-)

MODERATOR: This is a very interesting meeting; you're doing great. Half-hour warning...bong.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Fortunately, I like my Linux both pretty and functional.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: hehehehehe...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Okay. The tools you are using with Gpilot are actually the standard tools within GNOME. For the Calendar, you are using the Gnome Calendar tool...For address book, you are using GnomeCard.

HREGAN011: Haha. I noticed a lot of users swear by command line.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: I know users who have console as their DESKTOP!

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: They do all their writing in LaTeX, their mail in mutt (elm or pine), they’re browsing with lynx, and so on.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Ollllllllld school! Not that I mind. I use pine on a daily basis. I also edit my text with pico.

TECHIEKY: When is pine going to have a GUI?


JCARLISLE: GUIs don’t solve everything. There are many applications that run just fine as text apps.

MODERATOR: Spoken like a true text believer!!!!!

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: I know that there have been attempts at putting front ends on pine, but when you have a mail client as stable and secure as pine, why change!

HREGAN011: GUIs take away from processing power.

TECHIEKY: Well, GUIs are more efficient for users, in my most humble opinion—having studied user interface design.

JCARLISLE: Not necessarily...a properly designed menu system can be much more efficient than a GUI.

TECHIEKY: I mean, we have CPUs the speed of supercomputers, why not use them?

HREGAN011: Yeah, users are usually lost with the GUI.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: I agree...and I know of an e-mail client that actually and finally pulled me away from pine.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Give Balsa a try.

TECHIEKY: Balsa? Do you have a link? That sounds promising if it pulled YOU away from pine!

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: It's amazing.

TECHIEKY: For jcarlisle—yes, a well-designed menu will always be better than a poorly designed GUI.

TECHIEKY: But as equals, the gooey wins.

MODERATOR: Uh uh—the text vs. gooey wars...I thought that was over in the 1980s.

MODERATOR: Only Linux!

HREGAN011: It always comes up…haha.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: No text vs. GUI wars here. ;-)

JCARLISLE: By definition, they can’t be equals, but I'll defer to the speaker on the topic restriction.

In the pilot’s seat
TECHIEKY: OK, got a real question for you this time...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: I actually think a combination of the two is the best of all.


HREGAN011: So Gpilot is the only GNOME app you know?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: For the pilot—but the jpilot application will work with GNOME.

TECHIEKY: I've got RH 6.2 set up on the network, but I can't get pine to go out and get my mail. If you have time and it's not too off topic, can you tell me what I'm supposed to set up?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Now if you've done a complete installation (both GNOME and KDE) you'll have both Kpilot and Gpilot available.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: If you can send me an e-mail (to I'll get you going with pine I promise. ;-) Just send me an e-mail to remind me of your problem and we'll get you going.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: we've briefly discussed Gpilot. Let's hit Kpilot for a moment. Kpilot is to KDE what Gpilot is for GNOME. The biggest difference (other than the environment) is that Kpilot doesn't have the full spectrum of tools.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: You are primarily limited to popmail, to do, and calendar.


SPEAKER_JWALLEN: You got it techieky.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Where Kpilot does exceed is that it integrates your pilot to Korganizer.

HREGAN011: Will you answer any questions via email? Or just about pine?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Korganizer is a pretty awesome application, and it fits perfectly into the pilot style of thinking.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Any questions. Send 'em my way, and if I can't answer them, I'll find someone who can.

HREGAN011: Thanks. Do these all support all versions of palm pilots, or have you seen any not work properly?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Also the Kpilot has a centralized location (or front end) to all of its settings and such. Where GNOME’s gpilotd allows you to open up the GNOME configuration tool (where you can configure all of GNOME pilots’ settings), you don't get the feeling of a solitary application.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Well, I have a really old palm professional, and I know it works with the most current versions. So I'd have to say, yes; it supports all types of palms (with the current exception of USB).

MODERATOR: Fifteen minutes, good people.

Just the FAQs
SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Okay, let's move over to the console pilot. This suite of applications is actually really large. You can do nearly anything with this suite that you can with the other. Obviously this is all done with commands, and sometimes they can get a bit lengthy. The package is called pilot-xfer and can be found on

HREGAN011: Any faqs you know of?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: (One of the downfalls—it's not on your Linux install by default).

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: I have a three-part series of drill downs coming out very soon that will discuss each of these in detail.

HREGAN011: Never mind.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: As far as faqs for console you can go to, and you will probably find a faq.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: The syntax for the pilot-xfer suite is:

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: pilot-xfer [serial device] [--exclude file] [--restore directory | --list | --purge | --fetch dbname... | --delete dbname... | --install file... | --merge file ...] ...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: A bit confusing I'm sure. ;-)

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Let's say you want to simply see a listing of all the databases currently in RAM; you would run: pilot-xfer –l, and you would see which databases you have. Notice I left out all sorts of arguments and switches. This is simply because of defaults.

MODERATOR: Ten minutes, everyone—time for those last essential questions.

TECHIEKY: OK, so what's Linux again? ;-)

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: The pilot-xfer will use /dev/pilot as its default port so you typically won't have to worry about that.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Linux is one heck of an OS. That's what Linux is. ;-)

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Does anyone have any questions now regarding the palm and Linux? I realize I've just glazed over the issues....I also want to say that very soon there will be a rash of Linux-based palm devices such as the Agenda VR3.

HREGAN011: How does hot sync work? Just as good as the other platform? haha

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Just as well. Say in GNOME...if you have the gpilotd running (that's the daemon), all you have to do is hit the hot sync button, and away it goes. The same with Kpilot.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Now with pilot-xfer, you have to run the command and then hit the hot sync button.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: One more step for mankind...

MWALTON: Hot sync has always been problematic. Has your experience been pretty reliable?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Very reliable. It also seems to be much quicker under Linux.

HREGAN011: Hitting the button won't start the daemon though? It must be running? I have never personally had a problem...

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Right. You have to start the daemon. For GNOME, all you have to do is put the applet in the panel...or you can run the command gpilotd.

HREGAN011: Okay.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: You'll get a message back telling you that the run was successful. Now anytime you hit the sync button it will sync. The only oddity I've found (in Gpilot) is that the calendar always opens when you sync. I have no idea why, but it does. So you just have to close the app when sync is finished. But don't close it beforehand. You could corrupt your calendar. We don't want that.

HREGAN011: Okay, I'll have to check it out tonight. I believe the MS version opens also...never really took notice…

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Any last questions? Any last Linux questions? Remember to send me ( an e-mail with your questions. Or ask them in your last minutes. ;-)

And the winner is...
MODERATOR: And now, here's today's winner…

MODERATOR: hregan011!!!!!

HREGAN011: What was the command line to add the /dev/pilot line?

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: You mean to create the link?

MODERATOR: You'll be eligible for our prize.

HREGAN011: Alright!

HREGAN011: Yes.

TECHIEKY: Way to go!!!

MODERATOR: Please send to your real live name, address, and your handle, so I'll know you.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: ln /dev/ttyS* /dev/pilot (where * is the port number)

HREGAN011: Thanks!

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: And send to me your real live questions. ;-)

MODERATOR: It's getting to be about that time, so I want to make sure to thank Jack Wallen, Jr. for his tireless proselytizing...

MODERATOR: I mean help.

MODERATOR: About Linux.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Congrats everyone. I hope you all had a good time.

MODERATOR: Jack, thanks again for a great job. Well done!

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: You're welcome. Thank you everyone, and have a great evening!

TECHIEKY: Thanks, Jack. As usual, I learned a lot. Thanks hregan011, too.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Pet some penguins on your way home. ;-)

HREGAN011: Thanks, Jack.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Welcome. I'll be awaiting your questions.

SPEAKER_JWALLEN: Take care all.

MODERATOR: Tomorrow, at 9 P.M., we have a meeting. Vincent Danen will be speaking on Demystifying DHCP. A subject that could use demystifying. (Does Linux to that?)

HREGAN011: What platform?

MODERATOR: Hmmm....I think Vincent is qualified to talk on both. Tell your friends. I hope to see you there. Have a great day all!


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website