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Switched On: REDFLY seeks your green before Halloween


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology. A special note this week; this post marks the fourth year of Switched On columns for Engadget, and we'd like to give a big thanks to Ross for all his hard work and intriguing ideas. We're looking forward to the next four! -ed.

Palm's abandoned Foleo had a split personality. It was positioned as a smartphone companion, but it was also a new platform. Consumers expected to pay less for the former and saw no need for the latter. But the idea of a small, inexpensive notebook computer certainly struck a chord and now many major PC manufacturers sell Linux and Windows-based "netbooks" that generally start at $499 or less. They are even starting to migrate toward the 10-inch screens that Foleo champion Jeff Hawkins promoted as ideal for accommodating a full-sized keyboard. However, ceci n'est pas une Foleo. While the big boys have pursued one part of the Foleo's promise, Celio Corp. is taking on the other part.

The REDFLY "smartphone terminal" (a description that leaves no doubt off the bat that this is currently an IT-focused product) looks like a small notebook PC, but it does not have any processing capabilities of its own. Instead, it uses the operating system and wireless connectivity of a growing list of supported Windows Mobile smartphones. Wrapped in a smooth rubbery plum coating, its industrial styling includes an 8.3-inch screen that runs at a resolution of 800 x 400. Its slightly cramped keyboard is on par with those of 9-inch netbooks and certainly more comfortable than that on the Eee 701. And its short but very wide trackpad tops has two large buttons where you'd expect them to be.

After downloading a video driver for a supported Windows Mobile smartphone, the REDFLY must initially connect to a Windows Mobile smartphone via a USB cable; after that, you can use USB or Bluetooth for a wireless connection with the phone. Almost any application that can be used on the phone will accept input from the REDFLY keyboard and trackpad and display on its screen. But not all applications are, of course, created equal.

Celio notes that the quality of the REDFLY experience will vary significantly depending on the device on which its used; a 3G network will yield a better experience than an EDGE device. In addition, a REDFLY is only as capable as the applications on its phones. Having access to the professional edition of Office Mobile on the Palm Treo Pro is better than the basic version bundled on smartphone edition phones like the BlackJack II. Internet Explorer is hardly the state of the art in mobile browsers these days and an attempt to try the impressive Skyfire browser beta on the Palm Treo Pro connected to the REDFLY failed.

On the other hand, mapping applications such as Google Maps work very well. The REDFLY can also access some of the capabilities of desktop applications using remote control clients for protocols such as Microsoft's RDP And Citrix's ICA. Celio is still polishing drivers for Windows Mobile devices in the market, but has plans to support other operating systems, including that on the iPhone. That will be an interesting feat.

The REDFLY's stodgy industrial design, use of Windows Mobile on its 8-inch screen, and compressed but usable keyboard all recall the NEC MobilePro devices that used Windows CE back in the 90's. Those products, also aimed at enterprises, were expensive and lacked the wireless connectivity inherent to Windows Mobile phones. The REDFLY generally does a good job of scaling up a user interface designed for a much smaller screen, but aesthetic quirks sometimes surface for applications that assume a certain screen resolution. Still, overall the REDFLY works very well and provides a responsive alternative to having to deal with the thumbboards or on-screen keyboards of smartphones.

The REDFLY has seen its price drop dramatically since its introduction and is now available for $199 until October 31st. If you are the kind of person who lives on their Windows Mobile device, it is an easy investment to justify. It's also easy to see the appeal of the curious clamshell to IT departments; the REDFLY goes a long way toward stretching a smartphone into a viable laptop replacement for a short trip and does not require the maintenance or synchronization or perhaps even additional platform to support that a netbook might.

Celio rates battery life at 10 hours, but keeping your phone going that long, particularly if it's accessing Wi-Fi or 3G, may reduce its effective productivity to much less. The REDFLY also sidesteps the complexity around tethering a laptop to a phone to access wireless broadband although it remains to be seen whether carriers will rebuke REDFLY users who can now use their smartphones for a data experience that is one step closer to a desktop experience.

However, the reality of a cell phone-focused lifestyle is not quite here for most and at this point the REDFLY is a hard sell for most consumers versus more stylish, functional and content-savvy netbook PCs. As smartphone operating systems and applications continue to evolve and become more capable, though, REDFLY could eventually tap into all you need when you don't need the productivity of a workhorse PC.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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