For Palm, 2001 was a pretty bad year. CEO Carl Yankowski resigned, Palm's wireless strategy experienced a dramatic turnabout, and the Palm OS was spun off into a separate company called PalmSource. Both end users and IT managers have justifiable concerns about where the company is headed.

To get an update on Palm's current status, I evaluated Palm's new Palm i705 wireless device, which is aimed squarely at the corporate market. I also spoke with Jonathan Oakes, Palm's director of enterprise strategy, and Michael Mace, PalmSource's chief competitive officer, about the new strategy. In a nutshell, they have decided to bet both companies on what they think is a killer application: wireless corporate email.

The i705
A key element in Palm's wireless corporate email strategy is the new i705 device. Palm designed the i705 to be a first-class wireless email client. It's smaller (3.1" x 4.7" x 0.6") and lighter (5.9 ounces) than its predecessors, so the i705 fits comfortably in a shirt pocket. With the silver-finish case, the i705 is better looking than the earlier Palm VIIx and Palm VII wireless devices.

Unlike the Palm VIIx and Palm VII, the i705 is powered by a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery. The battery charges whenever the i705 is in the HotSync cradle. You don't need to raise the i705's antenna to turn on the built-in modem; the i705's software performs that task. By default, the modem is off until you try to use a wireless application. At that point, you receive a message that asks whether you want to turn on the radio (Palm's term for the wireless modem) long enough to complete a transaction. You can opt to turn on the radio, or you can use Radio Settings to select a different mode. You can opt to have the modem on continuously or schedule it to be on for a specified number of hours each day.

Having the modem on continuously drains the battery. I tried the continuous mode one afternoon; by morning, the unit was dead. However, the continuous mode lets you take full advantage of one of the i705's features: email notification. With notification enabled (which it is, by default), the i705 automatically checks the Palm.Net service for new messages approximately every 80 seconds. When new messages are available, the built-in two-color LED blinks red and the unit beeps. The unit doesn't download the message until you request it, which means that the i705 can function as a pager, provided you're within Palm's network coverage. To check whether Palm offers network coverage in your area, go to http://wireless.palm.net/coverage. My experience over the past 2 years is that coverage is excellent in major cities and is expanding rapidly in most major urban areas.

Out of the box, the i705 provides text-only wireless email, support for binary file attachments, and wireless access to Microsoft Outlook email from the corporate desktop—including mail on a Microsoft Exchange Server machine. Each of these features has limitations, though. You can send attachments only to another i705 device, and those attachments must be 5KB or smaller. You can receive larger attachments, but attachments bigger than 32MB will probably cause the i705 to time out and fail. You must use the device's palm.com account or another POP3 or IMAP4 account to send and receive attachments. In all, the i705 supports up to eight accounts, with no more than 180 messages in an account at one time. (Palm recommends 50 or fewer messages.) When the i705 accesses an Exchange server, the device receives only the message body.

While on the subject of limitations (and outright bugs), I have a tip for wireless Palm users and the administrators who support them: Download the AskPalm Web Clipping Application from http://www.palm.com/support/kb/pqa/kb_pqa.html. This application lets users browse Palm's online knowledge base with the i705, Palm VIIx, Palm VII, or any other Palm OS­based device that has a wireless modem. From your desktop, you can get the same information by browsing http://www.palm.com/support.

Two features—email collection and the Palm MultiMail Deluxe Desktop Link—make integrating the i705 with an existing email system easy. The email collection (also called email aggregation) feature automatically collects mail from one or more POP3 accounts and forwards the mail to the device's palm.com account. This collection process is part of Palm's service for i705 users and doesn't require any additional software on the user's desktop. I tried this feature and found that it works well. However, it forwards all messages from the selected account, regardless of the messages' age. If users delete old messages regularly, receiving all the forwarded messages shouldn't be a problem.

The MultiMail Desktop Link feature is available to users in an Exchange environment. This background application runs continuously on a user's desktop and polls the Exchange server for new mail. When Exchange receives a new message, MultiMail Desktop Link uses the Data Encryption Standard X (DESX) symmetric-key algorithm to encrypt the message, then forwards it to the user's i705. However, MultiMail Desktop Link doesn't forward attachments and doesn't support connection of the desktop to the server over a VPN. MultiMail Desktop Link will fail if you change the i705's password.

To use MultiMail Desktop Link, you need Exchange 2000 Server or Exchange Server 5.5, but you don't have to activate Exchange's POP3 feature. MultiMail Desktop Link requires Outlook on the user's desktop. You can obtain MultiMail Desktop Link from http://www.palm.com/products/palmi705/desktoplink.html.

Another Wireless Solution Is Coming Soon
Many Exchange administrators want a direct link between the email server and the wireless device so that they can avoid involving the users' desktops. That direct link is coming: Palm will soon offer Palm Wireless Messaging Server, one of four components that make up Microsoft's Wireless Messaging Solution. (To learn about all four components, go to http://www.palm.com/enterprise/products/messaging.html.) For the most part, Wireless Messaging Server performs the same function as Microsoft Mobile Information Server, except that Wireless Messaging Server uses the i705 as the client and Cingular Wireless's Mobitex wireless network as the transport. Wireless Messaging Server operates behind the corporate firewall and supports both Lotus Domino and Exchange servers. Wireless Messaging Server uses DESX to encrypt all messages before it sends those messages to clients.

As I learned more about Wireless Messaging Server, an omission became obvious: Microsoft wasn't providing a tool that would allow wireless synchronization between Wireless Messaging Server and an Exchange server. When I asked Oakes about this omission, he noted that third-party products, such as Extended Systems' XTNDConnect Server, are available to provide full-server synchronization for Palm devices. Oakes also pointed out that a full synchronization operation at Mobitex or General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) data rates would be pretty slow.

Palm expects that Wireless Messaging Server will be available this summer (it's currently in beta) at the cost of $2499 for the server software, which includes 25 client licenses. Additional licenses will sell for $49 each, with quantity discounts available. Corporate flat-rate Palm.Net wireless accounts will cost $39.99 per month.

More Changes on the Way
In the future, bandwidth should be less of a problem for wireless handheld devices. Palm already offers 802.11 wireless Ethernet support through add-on cards for its Palm m100 and Palm m500 devices. Beyond that point lies a whole new class of devices. These next-generation devices will use Palm OS 5 and Intel StrongARM processors. All current Palm-compatible devices use a version of Motorola's DragonBall processor, which is basically a low-power version of the 68000 CPU that early Macintosh computers used. PalmSource designed Palm OS 5 to use the same StrongARM processors that Pocket PC 2002 devices use. Details about Palm OS 5 devices are sketchy at this time. For example, although a desktop simulator is available, its features aren't complete.

Neither PalmSource nor Palm expects Palm OS 5 to replace Palm OS 4, which current Palm wireless devices use. When I spoke with Mace, he was quite explicit about that point. "It won't be a wholesale cut-over from DragonBall-based OS 4 to ARM-based OS 5 devices," Mace said. Mace also pointed out that PalmSource is working to achieve a high level of compatibility between versions. Palm OS 5 devices should be able to run 75 to 80 percent of existing Palm OS 4 applications without having to modify those applications.

Palm OS 5 devices will be network-ready, support Short Message Service (SMS), and offer optional 802.11 support. In addition, Mace told me that he wants the Palm OS 5 devices to include a Web browser that's better than the Web clipper in current Palm wireless devices and better than the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) browser in Pocket PCs.

Mace expects the first Palm OS 5 devices to be available by the end of this year, and surprisingly, he doesn't expect them to be more expensive than existing devices. "We're not seeing a lot of code expansion, so we don't think it will significantly impact memory requirements," Mace said. Mace also expects that most applications will see equal or better performance on Palm OS 5 devices compared with Palm OS 4 devices, even if those applications are running in emulator mode.

Mace's advice to IT administrators concerned about new Palm OS 5 devices is to not panic and to make sure they have the latest version of any applications they support. On PalmSource's Web site (http://www.palmos.com), the company will post compatibility lists and other information.