PalmSource, the Palm spin-off that heads development of the popular handheld operating system, shipped Palm OS version 5 to developers and licensees today.

The new version of the Palm OS was previewed at the PalmSource Conference & Expo in February. At the time, the software maker expected to have the operating system ready to ship to licensees in late June or July.

“We’ve beat that date,” said Steve Sakoman, chief product officer at PalmSource.

Licensees including Sony, Handspring and Palm make handheld devices based on the Palm OS.

Strong ARM The operating system introduces support for processors based on the ARM (Advanced RISC Machines) chip. It’s the first time that the Palm OS will be able to run on handheld devices that don’t use chips from Motorola’s DragonBall family.

PalmSource believes that applications will run anywhere from two to 20 times faster with the new chip architecture.

“ARM is certainly the chip everybody in the handheld space is moving toward,” said Todd Kort, principal analyst with research company Gartner. “It’s been extremely important that Palm moves off the ancient DragonBall architecture.”

The ARM-based chips can run at speeds from 75 MHz to 600 MHz, dramatically increasing the performance of Palm OS devices, according to PalmSource’s Sakoman.

“The market is moving beyond the low end, and it wants colour devices. It wants to be able to play music here and there; it wants something that’s a little bit more capable,” Kort said. “Palm had to move to a new chip architecture with more horsepower to provide that extra power for people who need it.”

Palm OS 5 offers redesigned icons, and text display is “easier on the eyes,” Sakoman said. Users will be able to change the combination of colours that appear on screen. The operating system has higher-quality audio playback and built-in support for a sharper screen-resolution of 320-x-320 pixels.

New security features include support for SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocol, used to secure email, Web browsing, and online transactions. Support for the IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN standard will also be built in.

Early devices based on Palm OS 5 are expected to ship with an OMAP (Open Multimedia Applications Platform) chip from Texas Instruments, which is based on the ARM architecture. New devices running the software may be released as early as September.

The operating system is backwards compatible with older applications – about 80 per cent of Palm OS 4.1 applications will run in emulation mode on the new OS. Palm OS 5 applications aren’t expected to ship for another year.