Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Palm Foleo: It's a PC, dummy

Wow, what an interesting day this was in the mobile and web world:

--Apple hinted that it will allow third party developers to add applications to the iPhone, potentially overcoming one of the device's biggest shortcomings (link).

--Google announced Gears, an open source project to enable web apps to work offline -- injecting Google into the growing effort to make PC operating systems irrelevant, and linking Google with Adobe (link).

--Livescribe previewed its pen computing device, the latest in a long series of efforts to turn Anoto's pen sensing technology into a commercially viable product (Livescribe link, Anoto background).

And oh yeah, Palm finally announced Jeff Hawkins' secret project, the Foleo.

A lot of the online commentary on the Foleo hasn't been enthusiastic. Engadget called it the "Foolio" (link). Ars Technica's article was headlined, "Palm officially out of ideas, debuts 1990s palmtop concept" (link). The discussion on the Palm Entrepreneurs Forum (an e-mail list for Palm application developers) was more balanced between admirers and detractors, but even there a lot of people were very lukewarm.

I think a lot of this is Palm's fault. They're trying to position the Foleo as a "mobile companion,"* a device that smartphone users can carry with them when they need a keyboard and bigger screen. In other words, it's for a small subset of the smartphone market, which itself is a small subset of the phone market. A niche inside a niche. The Stowaway keyboard folks should worry.

But I don't think the Foleo really is a "mobile companion." Back when I started to work at Palm (before the turn of the century) one of the old veterans of the company pulled me aside and passed along a little wisdom. "Michael," he told me, "Ya gotta think in terms of real estate. If you're in another device's real estate, you're competing with that device. Palm lives in your pocket; it competes with other things that go in your pocket. If you get bigger than the pocket, you're living in the briefcase, and you're competing with the notebook computer."

Foleo lives in the briefcase. It's displacing the notebook computer from your bag. I don't care what they call it, I don't care if Palm fully realizes it yet, but the fact is that Foleo's a notebook computer.

More to the point, Foleo is the most significant new consumer PC platform introduced in the US since the Macintosh. All you Linux heads who have been asking for a true consumer Linux PC, you finally got your wish.

Wow. That's kind of cool. It may be crazy, but it's a craziness I like. Palm has reimagined the PC for the wireless Internet era, simplifying and stripping away everything they thought was no longer necessary. So since most people carry a phone, you use the phone as your wireless modem. The device also has no hard drive. Since everything is stored in flash RAM, you never actually shut it down -- you just turn off the power, and when you turn it on again all your data and apps are still there, waiting for you. This is normal in a handheld, but it's long overdue in a PC.

"Desktops and laptops were too large, expensive, complex. You're not going to build billions of these complex machines, you build mobile computers....But it became clear the smartphone wasn't going to fill that role....You need a full size screen and keyboard." --Jeff Hawkins, quoted in Engadget

How well will the Foleo sell?

I don't know. It's not the product I would have built (my long wait for an info pad continues). The most successful mobile devices in the last decade have been specialized products that solve one problem for one type of customer -- iPod plays music for entertainment hounds, GameBoy plays games, BlackBerry does e-mail, Palm Pilot does your calendar, etc. The Foleo flies in the face of that. Although Palm talked a lot about e-mail today, the device also has a browser built in, and clearly has ambitions to be a general-purpose computer. I think we should judge Foleo on those terms, not by measuring it against other products we all imagined or wanted. Here are a couple of quick thoughts, and I'll probably post more in a few days after I've had more time to think about it...

Palm can now succeed even if Treo fails. Palm implied that the Foleo will be able to work with any smartphone, not just the Treo. This potentially gives Palm a larger market, and also sidesteps the operators, since Foleo can be sold through consumer electronics stores. Palm execs have been very public in saying that they are happier selling through retail rather than through operators, so today they must feel a little bit liberated.

Beware the Windows CE factor. I have seen many products very similar to Foleo fail over the years, and that worries me a lot. For years Microsoft and the Windows CE hardware companies produced a series of sub-notebooks that looked eerily like the Foleo. Like Foleo, you were supposed to use them to do light browsing and e-mail. They all died quickly, mostly because they looked so much like Windows that people expected them to run Windows apps. When people didn't get the full Windows experience, there was an immediate backlash.

Foleo's a little different because it doesn't pretend to be any flavor of Windows. But the hardware design looks an awful lot like a Windows PC, and that's going to create the wrong impression. Maybe Foleo looks nicer in person, but in the photos it looks like an anonymous gray box, disturbingly like a Dell subnotebook. It doesn't seem to have the lust-inducing look of the Treo 600, let alone the Palm V. I wish they'd made the case more distinctive, or at least a different color, because then people might expect different things from it.

Success probably depends on the apps. Like other PCs, Foleo doesn't do all that much out of the box. It apparently comes with Documents to Go (a well respected suite of Office apps, ported from Palm OS), an e-mail client, and a browser. That's all nice, but it's definitely not enough to make me put down my notebook computer. I think Foleo will eventually live or die based on whether it attracts a lot of third party applications that do interesting things you can't do with a notebook PC.

Palm has been evangelizing a number of developers to create apps for Foleo, but for some strange reason it excluded them from the Foleo announcement today. Instead, the announcements are going to be dribbled out one by one over the next few weeks and months. I presume the idea was that they'd create a sense of momentum, but I think instead what Palm did is make today's announcement less impactful than it could have been.

That means we haven't heard the full Foleo announcement yet. There's more to come from the third parties. We won't be able to really judge the device until we see the totality of what it'll do at launch.

My bottom line, based on what I know today: As a standalone mobile data device, the Foleo is uninspiring. As a potential challenger to the notebook PC, I want to believe, but the proof will be in the third party apps.


*By the way, the term "mobile companion" is perilously close to "PC Companion," one of Microsoft's early terms for Windows CE devices. The phrase gives me hives, but I think that's just me.

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