Microsoft, Symbian in Palm’s future?

Like trying to figure out which mercenaries the Yankees will hire for the pennant race each year, speculating on PalmOne’s next move has become somewhat of a national pastime (to some, at least) since the company split from the Palm OS division last year. Even PalmOne execs themselves aren’t immune: Earlier this year, a Palm exec raised more than a few eyebrows when he popped off that the Palm OS was “not viewed internally as a religion”. Whether it was just posturing, or a hint at discussions happening behind the scenes, the comment suggested that Palm hardware would not always necessarily be wed to the Palm OS.

Now we learn that PalmOne will license Microsoft’s ActiveSync for future devices. Is a Windows Mobile-based Treo or Tungsten far behind? It’s unlikely. While the deal is a good one for both Palm and Microsoft – PalmOne gets the most popular enterprise-class email product and Microsoft gets more devices accessing Exchange data – it’s probably not a pre-cursor to a more involved love affair. If anything, it’s a response to RIMs continued dominance of all things email-related, and their recent shot at the Treo. With the release of RIM’s slick-and extremely affordable–7100t, make no mistake that PalmOne is feeling the heat.

But don’t be fooled, PalmOne is surely exploring other options. The Treo’s current, older Palm OS, certainly doesn’t feel like it was designed with a phone in mind. Spend five minutes with a Series 60 device and the shortcomings of the Palm OS for mobile phones becomes glaringly apparent. While Cobalt should address many of its predecessor’s shortcomings-no multi-tasking, etc-it’s been far too long coming. In the meantime, Symbian has been constantly tweaking its smartphone OS. A Palm-Symbian alliance would make sense, especially if PalmOne is serious on focusing on smartphones in the future.

Off the cuff, unscripted comments from maverick execs aside, the alliance between the Palm hardware and software folks already seemed uncertain. Where was PalmOne recently when PalmSource rolled out its new Cobalt operating system? They were barely involved in the announcement at all. Instead, the PalmSource focus was on new, white label phones. That’s a big departure from years past. It seems that after months of treading water, the two are finally starting to go their separate ways, which was the point of the whole split to begin with. Bottom line? Something’s up. It’s just not clear what. While we won’t see a platform switch in time for Christmas, don’t be surprised if by this time next year you’re hearing about a Symbian-based PalmOne phone…

Guest post by Matt Maier, Business 2.0’s fearless gizmo correspondent and my fellow traveler into the wireless wonderland. Matt uses six phones at a time, talks on none, takes video clips on two and when he is slowing down he double fists fizzy and fancy caffeine drinks. And oh by the way, send him a note and remind him how well the Dodgers are doing. Let him smile for a week or so more!