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Of Macs, Palms, and OS X

For Mac users, finding the right PDA can be a handful. Mac Advisor hed: Of Macs, Palms, and OS X dek: for Mac users, finding the right PDA can be a handful. by Dennis Sellers

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for the Palm-Mac relationship. On the one hand, Palm has at long last introduced handhelds with a USB cable that lets Mac users HotSync (share data) with the devices right out of the box. On the other hand, syncing with Apple’s new Mac OS X is a bit of a pain.

Palm’s latest PDAs, the $399 m500 and $449 m505, finally sport what is, for Mac users, an ordinary connector. For the Mac community, Palm’s move to a native USB cradle is good news–and long overdue. (Palm’s competitor, Handspring, has been doing this for a long time.) Previously, Mac users had to shell out an extra $40 for a converter, enduring an awkward method for connecting the Palm to a Mac. Combined with Palm’s decision to put Mac software on the accompanying CD-a practice it began with the m100’s release in August 2000–it appears that Palm has finally listened to Mac users, which compose approximately 10 percent of the company’s current customers.

With USB cradles, Palm hopes to attract more Mac users. The company has also tried to woo the Mac customer base by rewriting all the documentation to make it Mac-friendly, clearly describing all Mac-related topics.

However, the company is more than just a bit slow when it comes to making Mac OS X-native versions (a process called Carbonizing) of its Palm Desktop and syncing software. At July’s Macworld Expo in New York, Palm was demonstrating a prebeta version of its software running under Mac OS X. However, Palm officials wouldn’t give an exact release date, saying only, “sometime before the end of the year.”

Palm Desktop and HotSync Manager have been tested on Macs running OSes through Mac OS 9.1. And the Palm Desktop will work under the Classic environment. However, syncing with a Palm OS-based device under Classic is a slow process.

Palm Desktop 2.6.x will run in the Classic environment, allowing you to create, view, and edit information. The HotSync Manager software, which you need to perform a HotSync operation, works “under certain situations,” but isn’t officially supported, according to Palm. This affects not only Palm handhelds, but also Handspring and Sony PDAs that use the Palm operating system.

And what of those certain situations? While Mac OS X is not yet supported by Palm, testing has shown that you can perform a HotSync operation if the Classic environment in Mac OS X is running and you’re using the PalmConnect USB Kit. But the PalmConnect Serial Kit and the Universal USB cradle don’t work in the Classic environment. Of course, even in these conditions, the Classic environment must first be running to perform a HotSync.

If you want to use the PalmConnect Serial Kit and the Universal USB cradle, you’ll have to reboot in Mac OS 9.x. Of course, that’s the nice thing about Mac OS X. You can choose to start up your Mac with it or with the traditional Mac OS.

If you’re more adventuresome, there are some free Unix tools (Mac OS X has a Unix engine) available that purportedly eliminate the need for Classic and provide Mac OS X users with a limited subset of HotSync features via the command line. I haven’t tested these utilities out, so proceed with caution.

One is ColdSync, “a tool for synchronizing Palm OS devices … with Unix workstations.” According to the product Web site, you don’t have to install any extra utilities on the Palm to use ColdSync. It promises the ability to synchronize, archive, install Palm applications, and back up and restore all the Palm’s data. A number of conduits are available for download at the ColdSync Web site. Note this description from its developers: “ColdSync is not the only free Palm synchronization tool, nor laden with the most features. Rather, it aims to be stable, reliable, portable, and configurable in a ‘Unixy’ sort of way.”

Another option is XPalm Desktop, which supposedly provides a configurable and flexible Palm Desktop replacement. It’s designed to offer the tools “needed to connect your Palm or Palm-compatible handheld (including Handspring, Sony, and Palm) with Unix and Linux machines.”

All things considered, I’d recommend that Mac OS X users boot into Mac OS 9.1 to HotSync with their Palm OS devices. It’s simply the safest (if not the most convenient) way of syncing, especially when you’re using software such as Microsoft’s Entourage and Power On Software’s Now Contact/Up-to-Date products, which should have Mac OS X-native versions any day now. Meanwhile, contact Palm and tell ’em to hurry up with their Mac OS X software.

For Classic users who have been using a USB adapter for a serial connection, there’s a more convenient way: the Serial PC Card from Socket Communications. The product connects through a mobile computer’s expansion slots, which can be in a PC Card, CompactFlash Card, or Secure Digital (SD) Card format (though the last was under development as this column was written, and is due in the second half of 2001).

The Serial PC card doesn’t require any drivers, and it shows up as a serial port in the Palm software. It has the nine-pin connector common to Palm cradles. All you have to do is plug it in, connect the Palm cradle, and choose the port in the Palm software.

There’s another bypass to the USB and serial inconvenience if you own an Apple laptop with IrDA features. Both the PowerBook and Palm are IR-equipped. This means you can change both the modem port and the Palm HotSync port to IrDA. Open the HotSync Manager and choose serial port settings. Click the Local setup radio button and set the speed to “as fast as possible” and the port to “infrared port.” The MacFixIt Web site recommends assigning more than the 8MB minimum and 10MB preferred to HotSync memory, as well as boosting the memory allocations of Serial Port Monitor and Conduit Manager for the best performance.

You can change the memory requirements of an application by clicking on its icon, then choosing “Get Info” from the File menu on your desktop’s toolbar (at the top left side of your screen). The “Get Info” section will give you three options: General Information, Sharing, and Memory. Select the latter and you’ll see windows for increasing an application’s “minimum” and “preferred” memory.

Make sure that you have the IrDA option on in your IrDA control panel. And make sure AppleTalk is either turned off or set to something besides infrared. After you initially make these changes, you should restart your PowerBook.

On your Palm, open up HotSync, make sure “local” is highlighted, and choose “IR to a PC/Handheld.” Set the Palm infrared window next to your laptop’s infrared window. Tap the HotSync icon on the handheld, then open up HotSync manager on your Mac. Enable HotSync and the process should begin. This method isn’t super fast, but it works. (Infrared is rated to 4Mbps while USB is around 12Mbps.)

Besides the MacFixIt Web site (a must read for Mac users), there’s also a relatively new site,, which aims to be the “premier Web-based community resource for Palm-toting Mac users.”

Services include news, rumors, editorials, hints and tips, tutorials, special deals, product reviews, a Web site directory, a software directory, interactive discussion forums, and an e-mail discussion list.

Palm-Mac connectivity is important for the Mac platform. Some 60 percent of all handheld computing devices sold in the United States carry the Palm brand, while 90 percent of all devices, including those by companies such as Sony and Handspring, are powered by Palm software.

There are persistent rumors that Apple plans to launch its own handheld device. The company has denied the rumors, so it’s useless to speculate on whether any such device would use the Palm OS or some version of the software that ran on Apple’s late, lamented Newton device.

There are also persistent rumors that Apple is trying to buy either Palm or Handspring. These rumors have some basis in truth; Apple CEO Steve Jobs has admitted that the company has tried to buy Palm in the past. But don’t count on this happening, since Palm is beefing up efforts to ensure that it remains in the forefront of the handheld business.

There’s also speculation that Apple might license Palm’s software and use its resources to ensure and enhance compatibility between Palm OS devices and its own hardware and software. That may be the most likely true of all the rumors. In recent months, Palm has more clearly separated its hardware division and software division. Chief executive Carl Yankowski has even suggested that the company would spin off its software unit under the right market conditions.

In July Palm announced that it would license elements of Palm OS to Intel, Motorola, and Texas Instruments so that they may be incorporated into chips built on the ARM chip architecture. The move would make it easier for developers to create smarter and more powerful applications for Palm OS-based mobile gadgets, according to the Associated Press. The chips in the devices would essentially be Palm OS-ready.

“This should save Palm OS licensees development time, freeing them to focus technical resources on innovative differentiation based on their own areas of expertise,” according to a Palm press release.

Does this portend some sort of Apple-Palm collaboration in the future? Who knows? For now, Mac users are just hoping that Palm software gets Carbonized for Mac OS X sooner rather than later.

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