Palm has suddenly found itself in an unfortunate position. The Pocket PC platform, and with it the Windows CE operating system, has finally matured to the point where it can no longer be considered a joke. Microsoft has been actively trying to recruit developers away from the Palm platform and has been giving away development tools for Windows CE. What is an embattled Palm to do?

Palm’s reaction was to open itself up a bit more to the developers who use its platform. The new Palm OS Developer Program (PDP), announced on Oct. 23, 2001, signifies a previously unheard-of attitude of openness toward the Palm OS developer community. The PDP offers two levels of membership: the free Basic membership and the paid Advantage membership. But is this program enough to keep developers loyal in the face of fierce, aggressive recruiting from Microsoft?

Basic membership perks
The Basic PDP membership entitles developers to all of the following benefits:

  • Downloadable current and prerelease ROM images
  • Prototype ROM images (with confidentiality agreement)
  • Limited access to Palm OS source code
  • Marketing resources like discounted e-mail list rental, access to research, and press release assistance
  • SDKs, knowledge bases, discussion lists, and forums on a community Web site.

Two of these perks are particularly noteworthy: Web access to ROM images of both current and prototype products and opened sections of source code. These are significant because previously, Palm seemed to actively distrust developers. For instance, getting a ROM image to a Palm PDA you did not own was a messy process involving snail mail and consent forms, which was about as pleasant as oral surgery. You had a better chance at getting a look at Microsoft’s source for Word than getting a peek at any Palm OS source.

The royal treatment
For a $495 per year annual charge, you can enroll in the PDP with an Advantage membership. In addition to all the Basic membership features, you’ll also get:

  • Two free uses of Web- or e-mail-based code-level technical support per year.
  • Quarterly CDs by mail containing new developer tools and information.
  • Prototype ROM and seed information on a separate CD (with confidentiality agreement).
  • Discounted training services through Palm’s eLearning program.
  • Some marketing incentives, like Palm banner ads and eligibility for the Palm Powered Up Award program.

Wow! Two free technical support incidents per year—that’s nothing to sneeze at. The CD, on the other hand, wouldn’t contain anything you couldn’t get from the PDP Web site. The marketing perks appear to be aimed more toward independent software vendors than the typical enterprise developer.

Reading the Palm
While the new PDP is certainly interesting news, does this new program represent a boon for current Palm developers? The Basic membership is definitely worth the trouble of the signup process, but at $495, I think the Advantage plan is a little steep. Especially for enterprise developers, who’ll derive little benefit from the included marketing tools.

While developers haven’t exactly been leaving Palm in droves, and Palm’s core developers have remained loyal to the point of fanaticism, there have been some notable line-crossers. Vindigo and Creative Creek Software have both recently announced new versions of their products for the Pocket PC. Palm has some work to do to bring those developers who are still on the fence into its camp. Lowering the barriers to entry (like making access to ROM images easier) certainly helps, but it’s not enough by itself.

Developing for the Palm OS has a not entirely undeserved reputation for being a difficult endeavor due to the low-level APIs that developers traditionally have used to build applications for it. Higher-level tools are available, but these are usually produced by smaller organizations, don’t have Palm’s active endorsement, and don’t get much marketing attention. This is a problem, since Microsoft has built such a not entirely deserved reputation for easy development and easy integration with popular PC and enterprise applications.

In my opinion, Palm’s best move at this point would be to endorse one or more of the RAD tools that have become available and heavily promote it. By debunking the popular misconception that Palm OS development by definition is a low-level, messy affair, Palm can only help itself in the long run.

Tell us what you think

What do you think? Are you going to sign up for the program? Does the promise of code-level technical help and a quarterly resource CD justify $495 per year? Share your opinion on Palm’s new developer program by sending the editors an e-mail.