"The future of mobile computing"? Umm, not quite.
That was the general response to Jeff Hawkins' unveiling of the new Palm "Foleo" today at the D conference hosted by Wall Street Journal personal technology reviewer Walt Mossberg. Hyped in advance by Palm as "a new category of mobile device," the Foleo is clearly an attempt by the Treo-maker to re-create some buzz around the popular handheld devices and overcome impressions that the Treo has an outdated operating system and a relatively clunky design compared with flashy new products from rivals Research In Motion, Samsung, and Nokia. In a statement released prior to his onstage appearance, Hawkins -- the inventor of the Palm Pilot and the Treo, two products that helped revolutionize handheld computing -- called the Foleo "the most exciting product I have ever worked on."
Unfortunately for Palm, the initial reaction can be characterized as a yawn.
Initially priced at $500, the Foleo is essentially a Linux-based, large-screen companion device to the Treo, allowing users to create e-mails and edit documents using a 10-inch display and a full-sized keyboard. The new device, which weighs a relatively hefty 2.5 pounds, syncs automatically with the user's Treo and includes a battery with up to five hours of life.
The Foleo, Hawkins said, represents the first in a new line of devices aimed at redefining how people work while away from their desks. In a nod to the popularity of competing products, he added that he expects the Foleo to work with BlackBerry devices from RIM and with Apple's upcoming iPhone.
A commenter called "Treolo," writing on the TreoCentral message board, summed up the consensus response: "OK so it kind of looks like a UMPC [ultra-mobile personal computer], but cheaper. So???"
Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, is less dismissive: "By increasing the size of the device to accommodate a larger screen, Palm can potentially bring more satisfying online and multimedia experiences to the mobile user," Levy comments in an e-mail. Indeed, there's a whole class of potential users of mobile e-mail who have been turned off by the thumb-typing experience who may find the Treo, with its companion Foleo, more amenable. Another plus: the Foleo comes with a Wi-Fi connection, making it in combination with the Treo a dual-mode device of the sort many observers have been awaiting.
Indeed, while Hawkins made it clear that the Foleo is designed as a smartphone extension, not a laptop-replacement device, he added that the future of the product is limited only by the imaginations of developers and users:
"Foleo is a really inexpensive, small, beautiful device," Hawkins commented. "It's got Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Linux, a USB port, a lot of memory and memory expansion, and you can do an awful lot with that product." In the future, he added, "we'll see where it takes us."
What the new device doesn't do is address Palm's most glaring current weakness: "Despite all the hype surrounding the announcement of new hardware," says Levy, "the key to success remains the operating system, developer support, and carrier support."
Palm has promised a new Linux-based operating system for the Treo by year's end, with devices based on the new OS available in early 2008. That's a long time off in the fiercely competitive smartphone market.
"One of the missions we have at Palm is to design breakout products," Hawkins told Business 2.0 magazine last year. "It's hard, really hard, to do." The Foleo proves, again, just how hard it really is.