Friday, June 01, 2007

Make your Smartphone Smarter

This week, Palm attempted to prove they are still relevant in the mobile computing space with a newly announced device. Foleo is, in essence, a halfway device: it's not a laptop, nor is it a smartphone. Instead, its a slim, sleek instant-on device that is designed to pair seamlessly with your smartphone to provide laptop-like functionality. The idea is that there are times you need a full keyboard and a larger screen to use, but rather than invest in a separate laptop (with Windows bloatware and laptop weight), this device relies on your nearby smartphone to provide it with connectivity.

Positives:
  • The "instant on" is immediately appealing. Hell, most of the time, my laptop at work stays on the desk, as waiting for it to come out of sleep mode in a meeting seems to make Windows behave like a bear roused early from hibernation.
  • It is definitely a minimalist device: good for travelers, for instance, who just want to watch a movie, catch up on email, or take notes in meetings.
  • The Linux-based UI seems to be a hybrid of Palm's legendary ease of use and the familiar Windows interface.
  • WiFi is built in, so you have the option of using your smartphone's connection or a handy hotspot.
  • In a clearly desperate, though savvy, bid to remain relevant, the Foleo is designed to talk to lots of smartphones, not just Palm ones. That means Blackberrys, Windows Mobile devices, and...yeah, you guessed it...iPhones.

Negatives:
  • 5 hours of battery life? C'mon, while that's good, it's not great, especially for cross-country flights.
  • The price is ridiculous. At $500, you can get a cheap laptop with tons more power and flexibility. This needed to be $299.
  • 2.5 lbs of weight? Remember, we're not talking about a full laptop here. High end notebooks are around that weight. Needed to be under 2 lbs, minimum.

See for yourself:

It's an interesting play. Foleo does fill a niche: the trend towards convergence is clear, but there are times you simply need the full keyboard and larger screen. It's not a groundbreaker, but it is intriguing. My prediction is a failure (see the Palm LifeDrive, for instance), but it will gain a surprising audience of hackers who figure out how to use the hardware to run Ubuntu and turn this into a full fledged ultralight network laptop.

The truly interesting part of the announcement is how it focuses on the cyclical nature of the computer business. See that photo to the left? It's the Apple PowerBook Duo 280c. It was my mainstay, a decade ago. Designed to bridge the gap between a desktop and a laptop, it offered an ultralight body with decent power and expandability. It's true value, however, was in the office: slide it into the dock, and seamlessly small motors pulled it in, making all of the necessary connections, and you had a full desktop machine, complete with additional hard drive space and power. To this day, while laptops proliferate, there is nothing like it: you still have endless cables and connections. Even the docks they sell are simply brute stands, that you have to fumble with connectors and wires to make work. Apple, as always, was ahead of its time.

The Foleo is taking a cue from the same philosophy, but going a different way. while I applaud the sentiment, I can see myself picking one of these up...after the price cut has happened and the happy hackers have started to make this the device it's meant to be.

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