Palm software developer, PalmSource, has shipped Palm OS version 5 to developers and licensees, leading the way for new devices running the software to be released as early as September.

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

"We beat that date," said PalmSource chief product officer Steve Sakoman.

The new operating system will, for the first time, provide support for processors based on the ARM (Advanced RISC Machines) chip architecture. It is the first time that the Palm OS will be able to run in handheld devices that don't use chips from Motorola's DragonBall family.

PalmSource has promised applications will run anything from twice as fast to 20 times faster with the new chip architecture.

"It's extremely important that Palm moves off the ancient DragonBall architecture," said Todd Kort, principal analyst with research company Gartner.

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

Early Palm OS 5 devices are expected to ship with an Omap (Open Multimedia Applications Platform) chip from Texas Instruments, which is based on the ARM architecture. Although no device makers have officially announced plans to use ARM processors from other vendors, Palm OS5 supports Intel's XScale chips and Motorola's DragonBall MX1 processors.

The operating system has also been lauded by analysts for being able to run applications developed for earlier versions of Palm OS. About 80 percent of the applications currently available for Palm OS version 4.1 will run on the upgrade in "emulation mode," Sakoman said.

Applications designed specifically for Palm OS 5 aren't expected to ship for another year, Kort said.

Palm OS 5 also has redesigned icons and the text display is "easier on the eyes," Sakoman said. Users will be able to change the combination of colours that appears onscreen. The operating system also has higher-quality audio playback and built-in support for a sharper screen resolution of 320x320 pixels, more than double the resolution on most current Palm devices.

New security features in Palm OS 5 include support for SSL (secure sockets layer) protocol, which is used to secure email, web browsing and online transactions. Support for the IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN also will be built in.

"Whether we will see support for that [802.11b] in hardware devices, I'm not sure," Kort said.