Saturday, September 1, 2001

Hack the planet


By Sam Kleinman

When the Palm OS was first released, it was intended to serve one purpose and one purpose only: personal information management. Palm realized that for its new little handheld computer to capture any of the market, they would have to make it possible for third parties to create and market software. To meet this demand, Palm released a SDK (Software Development Kit) so that people could write applications that customized their Palm handhelds. But all was not well in the world of the Palm OS; a Palm OS program could be written to do most things that someone would need a Palm OS program to do, but there were still some things that the operating system didn't do.

This is where system extensions, or hacks as they are generally known, come in. Hacks make some alteration to how the system runs or they bypass the system in some creative, sneaky, or wildly unorthodox way. In some senses, they are akin to tweaks in Windows; they make a small improvement or two to the functioning of the operating system. It should be said that improving or adding features to the operating system with hacks comes at the expense of system stability; the more hacks your Palm handheld has running, the more you can expect to reset your device. That said, there are also some essential hacks that few power users would ever leave home without.

Hacks are small applications that are generally free, but a number of them are shareware or commercial software. If you find something you want the Palm OS to do differently, it's likely that someone else has already sensed that gap and has written a hack for it. There are hacks that change how you launch programs, make input faster, replace the on-screen keyboard, prevent screen streaking, allow you to invert your backlight, overclock your processor, take screenshots, and oh, so much more. There are a number of popular hacks whose names are almost generic in the Palm OS world, such as LapTopHack, MiddleCaps, StreakHack, and Afterburner. These system extensions are, in my mind, some of the best around, and they're definitely a good place to start your hack collection.

Let's take a look at some of my favorites.


LapTopHack is probably the most extensive hack that I've ever used. Written by Paul Nevai, the author of the Pedit series of text editors, LapTopHack helps to improve text entry. It's available at for $14. It's pictured in Figure A.


LapTopHack improves text entry.

There are some features in LapTopHack that are designed solely for use with an external keyboard, such as the Palm Portable Keyboard (at, or the GoType! Keyboard from Landware (at However, even if you don't have a keyboard, there are a number of enhancements to the system that deal with Graffiti and other stylus-based entry. Like all hacks, LapTopHack has some incompatibilities with certain programs but, on the whole, it's a very stable and useful hack.