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Switched On: The Foleo Imbroglio (Part 2)


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

Last week's Switched On identified two groups of early adopters that have damned Palm's featherweight Foleo 10-inch screen unseen. The pricey purists won't give up the capabilities of Windows in an ultraportable, even if it costs them money and battery life, while the mobile minimalists have embraced and adapted to smartphones as all they need even for the excursions at which Palm is targeting the Foleo.

For some of the latter, Foleo may seem like a product that has arrived too late. In the early days, Bluetooth promised to turn cell phones into wireless gateways for laptops and other devices like the Foleo or Nokia N800, but support for such Dial-Up Networking (DUN) features was slow to arrive (and even then carriers sometimes disabled it), as were packets on the wireless networks themselves. Meanwhile smartphones started getting better keyboards and their operating systems improved. Handspring, long since acquired by Palm, did more for the mobile minimalists than any company to date with the Treo, the first smartphone that was widely viewed as successful at balancing PDA functionality and usability.

This is why Palm's "smartphone companion" messaging may be harming perceptions of Foleo. The smartphone installed base has been growing for the past few quarters as prices have come down, but the promise of Foleo is not having two devices. It's about providing the right device with wireless access. This is closer to the message that Nokia -- which has cell phones running deeply through its DNA -- pursued with its Linux-based, Bluetooth-enabled 770 and N800, and what has been responsible for their somewhat warmer reception.

Foleo may not deliver a lot of tools that distinguish it from a smartphone feature set at launch, but Bluetooth can provide it with a broadband web experience when it is out of WiFi's range. Palm is only assuring DUN compatibility with phones it officially supports (such as, of course, the Treo), but Foleo should in theory be able to hitch onto the net from any phone that supports DUN.

Indeed, the evolution of Web 2.0 and its hosted applications means that Foleo might actually be a bit ahead of its time. As we see more Ajax applications available for tasks such as e-mail, calendaring, RSS, instant messaging and office suite productivity, Foleo could become all one needs for 80 percent or more of typical computing tasks. Emerging technologies such as Google Gears could even make those applications available offline, with data conveniently synchronized to the cloud, not the smartphone as Palm is pitching today, Additionally, over the next few years, WiMAX promises to bring an affordable broadband wireless experience to products like the Foleo, doing even more to reduce its reliance on another mobile device and increase its value as an independent platform.

But those days are not yet here and smartphones are. In response to claims that there are other light laptops, other inexpensive laptops, and other laptops that have long battery life, Palm responds that we've yet to see any that combine those characteristics in one product. Based largely on the number of Treo users in North America, Palm believes that there is a large enough market to support Foleo, which it compares to the original Palm Pilot. However, the original Palm Pilot's purpose was as black-and-white as its original screen. It allowed you to take your personal information with you and sync it back to the PC. In contrast, Palm already appears to be wrestling with a "blind men and the elegant" problem, appealing to a range of mobile stakeholders who might have interest in Foleo, but who see it in different ways.

For now, the low-hanging fruit for the initial product include students, conference attendees, bloggers, reporters and the like who want a light, inexpensive text-crunching machine and information workers on the leading edge of a Web-based workflow. Foleo's symbiotic relationship with smartphones may serve it well should a rash of other low-cost and lightweight Linux laptops make their way into the market and validate the space, but basing the product's value proposition on such functionality clouds its appeal at launch. Palm's positioning of the Foleo as the first in a series of products implies that the company has the patience to sort out the features Foleo will need to find its true calling.

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.

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