Palm’s new product category re-focuses on synchronisation


Palm FoleoPalm, the mobile computing pioneer best known for its Treo smartphones, has announced the first product in a new category of mobile computing companion devices. The Foleo resembles a small laptop and pairs with a smartphone to provide a larger screen and full-size keyboard for document editing, web browsing and emails.

The concept harks back to the original premise of Palm’s early PDA products, which used ‘HotSync’ technology to ensure the contacts, emails and calendar information could be easily synchronised between a PC and a pocket-sized mobile device. This approach, where the smaller mobile device acts primarily as a viewing tool and the larger PC is used for data creation, has long been championed by Palm’s founder Jeff Hawkins. He has been the main proponent of the Foleo project, making cryptic references to its development in previous press interviews and fronting its launch today at a conference in California.

“”Foleo is the most exciting product I have ever worked on,” said Hawkins. “Smartphones will be the most prevalent personal computers on the planet, ultimately able to do everything that desktop computers can do. However, there are times when people need a large screen and full-size keyboard. As smartphones get smaller, this need increases. The Foleo completes the picture, creating a mobile-computing system that sets a new standard in simplicity.”

The Foleo itself does not have a cellular connection, but instead communicates over Bluetooth with a Palm smartphone or via a built-in Wi-Fi link. It runs an open Linux OS, developed by Palm, and includes the Opera web browser, a version of Palm’s own email client, office document software developed by Dataviz and Palm PDF and photo viewers.

To connect, users simply press a single button which establishes a Bluetooth connection between the Foleo and the Treo. Emails and other data are then automatically synchronised and the Foleo can use the Treo’s cellular link to connect to the web.

Palm claims the device will provide 5 hours of battery life and offers instant on, with no boot-up time. It also features a 10 inch screen which is navigated using a track point, jog wheel and forward/back buttons. It weighs about 2.5 pounds.

The open nature of the system has been widely emphasised during the launch. Palm is keen to encourage developers to create applications which extend the capabilities of the Foleo and will provide a ‘single click’ installation mechanism via the device’s web browser. The Foleo will also be compatible with a wide range of additional smartphones, not just Palm’s own Treo range.

It will be available in the US this summer and cost USD 499 after a USD 100 mail-in rebate.

This is an interesting new initiative from Palm, which eschews the current trend within the mobile industry to cram as many features as possible into smaller and smaller form factors. Instead, Hawkins has stepped back and attempted to identify the real way in which customers interact in the mobile environment. It would seem he has concluded there is a market for business users and power consumers to extend their mobile computing experience beyond the confines of a pocketable smartphone.

I suspect he is correct in this regard. Certain applications, such as web browsing, document creation and email management, are much better served by a large screen and proper keyboard. However, I wonder whether Palm’s Foleo will be able to offer enough unique selling points to convince customers there is any need to move to a new platform or device category when they already have a choice of numerous laptops and UMPCs offering similar, and in many cases superior, feature sets.

It’s going to be a hard sell to convince a user to spend USD 400 on a Treo and a further USD 499 on a Foleo, when they can purchase a Windows Mobile, Symbian or RIM smartphone and a full-blow companion laptop for just a few hundred dollars more.

However, there are several ways in which Palm could make a success of the Foleo:

Firstly, it must be part of a wider strategy, spanning a portfolio of web services, an active developer community and more capable companion devices. In an ideal world, I’d like to see a Foleo paired with a Treo running Palm’s new OS by the end of the year and offering much better rich media capabilities. The Treo will need an enhanced digital camera for this, expanding the Foleo’s remit beyond that of an email, document creation and browsing device and in to the realm of multimedia. It will also need to be paired with an unlimited cellular data plan and potentially a Nintento-style Wi-Fi roaming agreement.

Second, there is potential for the Foleo to tap into the demand from emerging markets for mobile web connectivity. Almost all of the new subscriber growth in mobile telecoms is coming from the developing world – countries like India, China and numerous African nations. Many users in these areas have no precedent for web interaction – their first and only experience of the internet will likely come through a mobile device. This should not be underestimated. I believe emerging market demand for low cost, simple-to-use mobile web devices will explode in the next few years and the Foleo could provide an interesting solution.

There is also the growing trend for existing web users to take their connection with them around the home. People sitting at the breakfast table with laptops or relaxing on the sofa with a web tablet. The increasing number of wireless broadband connections is enabling users to untether themselves and enjoy constant connectivity wherever they are. Nokia is already tapping into this with its N800 device and Palm’s Foleo offers an interesting alternative. Not only does it provide web connectivity, it also enables users to synchronise their most important information into a pocketable device so they can take it with them when they leave the house.

I suspect many analysts will be dissappointed by today’s announcement, especially in view of the hype which had built up around Palm’s mysterious new ‘third category’ of products. It has none of the visual excitement and immediate impact of, say, the iPhone.

However, I believe Palm has made brave move today by pre-empting the surge of interest around the concept of mobile computing. The Foleo clearly benefits from a customer-focused design approach and this ease-of-use could help Palm to win back the fiercely loyal customer base it enjoyed several years ago. The open approach to third party software development and the promise Palm’s of ‘one click’ installation process should also attract developer innovation to the platform.

The Foleo has Hawkins unique approach to product design written all over it. In 1996, his Pilot organiser became the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history and re-defined the PDA market despite offering a lower specification and less exciting features than its competitors. It do so purely on the strength of its user experience. If nothing else, it will be fascinating to see whether the industry has again under-estimated the potential of simplicity to attract new customers.


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