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Can Jon Rubinstein Save Palm?

So Palm just emailed a media invite to an event at CES, where it will reveal ??ll that new-ness you??e been waiting for.?That can only mean Nova, reportedly the long-awaited replacement for Palm’s badly-outdated operating system.

This is, in fact, a momentous, critical, live-or-die, make-or-break announcement for the company, which has been pretty much been left for dead by many investors since a brutal pre-announcment on Dec. 1. But truth be told, a new OS that’s truly reliable and innovative can go a very long way. As Steve Jobs is fond of pointing out, the reason for Apple’s success comes down to software. That’s why the Mac-based iPhone is helping Apple kick the smart phone competition all over the court, as a general purpose platform for running thousands of applications.

Apple’s strength makes this a great opportunity for Palm—to deliver the first brand new state-of-the-art smart phone OS in many years, and new devices to run on it. If it works and offers something exciting and new, you can bet carriers will want to ink deals if it gives them an alternative to the iPhone.

Yes, I know this sounds awfully rosy, given Palm’s dismal record in recent years. But who’s got a better shot at pulling it off? RIMM is busy cranking out products to run on its current OS. Nokia, Samsung, Moto — they all depend on someone else for this really tough software stuff. But Palm has always had Apple’s general systems approach to business; other than its not-so-successful Windows Mobile phones, it’s built its own hardware and software into products that people [used to] love.

Also, this isn’t the same old Palm. I’m not saying the new one is going to be a world-beater. But this OS release and the family of devices that will run on it will be the first Palm products developed under Jon Rubinstein, the former head of hardware engineering at Apple. He joined Palm a year ago. Since then, Palm has recruited 150 new techies, including some big names in computerdom such as former SGI software guru Way Ting and Apple engineering manager Mike Bell.

The result is that the mood inside Palm is very different than the mood about the company generally. I’ve had access to Palm executives of late, and will be writing more about the company’s plans and prospects. So stay tuned.

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