Penbex operating system takes on Palm OS

An alternative to the Palm OS (operating system) that already has attracted thousands of third-party application developers in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan is set to debut in July in the English-speaking world in a PDA (personal digital assistant) platform made by a Taiwan-based company and its vendor partners.

The Penbex OS, developed by Taipei-based Penbex Data Systems Inc., in its original Chinese version already runs a PDA sold in Chinese-speaking markets in Asia. Additional licensees will soon introduce PDAs based on the operating system, including the first to run its English version.

Billionton Systems will manufacture versions of the PDA for vendors in both the Chinese-speaking world and North America and Europe, said Kevin Pugh, a European sales executive for the company. Billionton showed off the PDA on the Computex Taipei 2001 show floor beside its existing lines of peripheral products.

Penbex hopes to seize a piece of the PDA market by taking advantage of its head start with a Chinese PDA operating system, which Palm Inc. does not yet offer, and by licensing its OS to vendors that have been frustrated by Palm's highly selective licensing of its own OS.

The Penbex OS looks similar to the Palm OS and offers many of the same features, such as a special handwriting recognition system, and the same basic applications such as datebook, address book and notepad. It is also designed to run on the same processor, Motorola's 16MHz Dragonball. Wireless communications support is built in.

Significantly, Penbex also has opened up its OS to both small and large third-party developers, said Paul Lai, assistant vice president of the company. The developer community already numbers about 5,000, he said. Palm's large developer community and the large number of applications it creates has been a key to the platform's success.

Where Penbex has distinguished itself is by offering traditional and simplified Chinese versions of its OS, including a Chinese-character handwriting recognition system. The OS debuted last October and Aplux Informatics is now selling a roughly Palm 3-sized PDA with it in China.

Palm promised in 1997 that it would offer a Chinese version of its OS but announced only last Friday that Acer Inc. will develop the Chinese version as part of a licensing agreement. Third-party developers already offer shell programs that can translate the OS.

Billionton is aiming its PDA at medium-sized OEM vendors that want to develop specialized devices for enterprises with special needs, such as GPS (geographical positioning system) applications. The company did not approach Palm to license its OS, after observing the company's cautious licensing practices, Pugh said.

"Palm is very close with its licensing," Pugh said. He thinks that one reason for that is that as both a hardware and software vendor, Palm does not want too many vendors competing with its devices. Instead, Billionton invested in Penbex in its early days and now is licensing its software.

Billionton's PDAs will be priced for end users starting at about US$230. It will include a Compact Flash slot similar to that in the Handspring Inc. Visor, and one of the first add-ons available for the device will be a Bluetooth wireless personal area network interface for that slot, made by Billionton.

Several other vendors also will introduce Penbex-based PDAs in Chinese markets this summer, said Penbex's Lai. Also on display in the company's suite at Computex was a wide range of hardware ported to the Penbex OS, ranging from an IBM Corp. 1G-byte micro drive to a SiPix Group Ltd. portable printer. Third-party software offerings include a digital map application.

In the mainland China market, he said, most Palm-size PDAs today use closed operating systems, limiting the number of applications that developed for them. Meanwhile, those based on the Microsoft Corp. Pocket PC platform are priced too high for most of the market and localization of the Windows CE operating system has been poor, he said. Meanwhile, Penbex estimates the Chinese market for PDAs at 2 million units per year now and expects it to grow 30 percent per year over the next five years.

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