Switched On: The Foleo imbroglio (Part 1)

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

If anything, Palm's Foleo seems like it was designed to elicit instant geek cred. It's small, thin and light, and its solid state storage helps provide long battery life. It has instant-on capabilities and supports Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It even runs Linux and all for only $500. However, quite to the contrary, much of the reaction to Palm's latest mobile foray has run the gamut from confusion to scorn, with some calling the product "Folly-o" or "Fooleo."

The core problem that the Foleo seeks to address is easy to understand, but its positioning is a moving target. Here's how early adopters are becoming lost in Foleo's rationale:

Palm: Smartphones continue to gain more processing power and more memory.
Users: OK, that's fair enough.
Palm: However, they are still deficient in input and output.
Users: Well, there sure are compromises, we can agree. I drag my laptop around when I need more.
Palm: So, what we need is a whole new device with a large screen and keyboard
Users: Whoa, why not create some kind of keyboard dock with a big screen for the Treo, like all those speaker docks for the iPod?
Palm: That's clumsy. We consider this a smartphone companion.
Users: I didn't realize my smartphone was lonely.

Palm: We call it that since people are moving their lives to their smartphones.
Users: They are? The only documents I have on my smartphone are from attachments.
Palm: Right, so the first application it will tackle is e-mail.
Users: But that's probably the thing that smartphones need the least help with.
Palm: Well, there's a lot more. It also has a Wi-Fi and a suite of "lite" office applications
Users: Huh? I thought you said that it was a smartphone companion? This sounds more like its own platform.
Palm: It is a platform. It also has an Opera browser.
Users: Then what do you need the apps for? Why not just use Web mail and Google Docs and Spreadsheets?
Palm: It supports Flash, too.
Users: Oh cool, so I can watch YouTube.
Palm: Sorry, no. No video support yet.

Most Foleo naysayers tend to fall into two camps -- the pricey purists and the mobile minimalists. In a notebook market that gravitates towards 15" workhorses and 14" basic bargains, pricey purists believe in the promise of an ultralight computing platform, but would rather spend $1,500 or more for a Windows notebook with dimensions comparable to the Foleo's. Or they're willing to spend less and get something a bit heavier with a 12" screen. In any case, compatibility costs them not only money, but battery life as well.

These people may need video or other capabilities on the road that can't be provided by Foleo's modest (though not yet disclosed) processor and RAM configuration or embryonic application support. They more than see the value in having a full-sized keyboard and screen on the go. In fact, they think it's too important to leave to a device that delivers anything less than the full benefits of Windows and are willing to pay a premium for it.

This isn't so for the mobile minimalists. They are committed to the ideal of smartphone amalgamation and anything that can't be done on their phones isn't worth doing until they return to their home base. Two devices are inherently bad. They've long since abandoned their iPod for a music phone and can't wait until phones take decent enough pictures to ditch their digital cameras.

Next week's column will delve more into this group, the implications of Bluetooth dial-up networking for the Foleo, and the need for a "smartphone companion".

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