The Palm Foleo: the beginning and end of the mobile companion category

The Palm Foleo is taking a lot of heat in the press right now and after taking some time to think about it some more I tend to agree that there really isn't a place for the device between a smartphone and a PC. There is a simple solution to add a full size QWERTY keyboard that has been around for years and smartphones are so advanced today that there really isn't a need for more. Do you think there is a market for the Palm Foleo?

Palm Foleo
Last week Palm announced the first device in their new "mobile companion" device category, the Palm Foleo. As stated in the full press release the Palm Foleo was Palm, Inc. founder Jeff Hawkins' idea. I think Hawkins has done an amazing job with the first Palm device, the Handspring models, and the very successful Treo line, but I am not yet sold on this latest device. Palm released the LifeDrive as a new "mobile manager" category of device that turned out being the only device in this category and is now not even sold by Palm. Unfortunately, I think the Palm Foleo and "mobile companion" device category may suffer the same fate.

The Palm Foleo smartphone companion has a 10.4 inch display and full-size QWERTY keyboard in a laptop-like form factor. It is designed to give smartphone users a larger viewable display and keyboard to view and respond to emails and edit and create Office documents. It also has an integrated web browser, Opera, to surf via WiFi or Bluetooth connected to a smartphone. Palm states that it will connect with Palm OS and Windows Mobile Treos and also "believes that most smartphones based on Windows Mobile should work with little or no modification." They also state that support for RIM, Apple iPhone, and Symbian devices can likely be added with "modest" developer effort. I don't think too many people are willing to shell out US$600 for a device that may or may not connect to their smartphone. At this time, you can add a Bluetooth keyboard to your device to get a full QWERTY keyboard experience and on some S60 devices you can even use a TV as an external monitor by just carrying some cables in your travel pack. Do we really need to carry another 2.5 lb device?

I think Palm and others have worked hard on making mobile devices more functional and useful as they are and find it interesting that Palm seems to be taking a step back and now releasing a device that says your Treo can't do it all. I can write long emails and documents on my mobile devices using the integrated thumb keyboards and if I want it is easy to add a Bluetooth keyboard for US$75 or less that is very easy to pack in a coat pocket. How often do people really write long documents and emails on their device anyways? The smartphone is designed as a phone and mobile device when you are away from your primary PC and I just don't see a place for the Foleo between these two. While the mobile browsing experience with the Palm OS browser is poor with the Internet Explorer Mobile experience being a bit better, I don't think carrying around a large device is the answer to fixing the browser issues either. The S60 3rd Edition browser ROCKS and if Palm could have a browser like this on the Treo then the Foleo has even less utility.

When I first read about the device, I thought of saving up my gadget cash for the Foleo as soon as it was made available because I am a gadget freak and I thought it looked slick. While some details are still vague, I was thinking the Foleo could be used as an instant-on basic computer since it is a Linux-based device that may be customized with applications created by Linux developers. However, it isn't clear how "open" this Palm Linux device will be and if developers will want to spend effort on a device that may not be as global as Palm hopes. I like the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet and was thinking the Foleo would be in the same category as this device. However, the N800 is primarily designed for wireless internet connectivity and multimedia functionality, which may make it a more compelling device than a productivity-focused companion device. The N800 is also US$200 cheaper and has a very open Linux architecture that developers actively support. I think if people are looking for productivity they will turn to a full Windows laptop, or even a UMPC for portability, since you can pick up a laptop for the same price as the Foleo. Granted the Foleo weighs in at 2.5 lbs versus a cheap laptop generally coming in at 6 to 8 lbs. UMPC prices (weighing in at around 2 lbs) are also dropping and the Samsung Q1 Ultra will start at US$799 with a ton more functionality than the Foleo. Then again, 2.5 lbs is nothing to shake a stick at and is not pocketable so you are going to have to carry it in a bag or case so why not just pack a full PC?

While us mobile enthusiasts may hope the whole world uses smartphones in the future, the smartphone market is still quite small at this time. And then to have a 2.5 lb laptop looking device to address some needs of another small segment of this small market just doesn't seem like a great move for Palm. Alan Graham, another ZDNet tech blogger, stated in his Foleo post, "Farewell Palm, you’ll be an interesting footnote in the annals of tech history as the Foleo becomes your swan song." I don't think the Foleo will be the end of Palm as long as they get their Linux-based smartphone OS out by the end of 2007 as they stated in April. The Treos are still great devices and it was a very smart move for Palm to adopt Windows Mobile, but the Treo form factor is also getting a bit clunky and outdated compared to slick devices like the Samsung Blackjack and T-Mobile Dash so I think an updated form factor in the Treo line would be refreshing as well.

The Palm Foleo could have been a revolutionary device if it was a QWERTY keyboard with a pop-up foldable display to give you a truly portable solution for expanding your smartphone into a mobile computer setup, but I think we'll still have to wait a few years for something like this to hit the streets. Can you really call a dumbed down laptop a revolutionary device?

Mobile enthusiasts and press around the globe don't seem too impressed with the Palm Foleo. It doesn't help that there is lots of information missing at this time, like there was with the iPhone announcement too, so I can't pass final judgement until the device is actually out in the hands of reviewers and enthusiasts. What do you think of the Palm Foleo?