...or you could just buy a laptop

30 May 2007

Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm, has a company that is building a machine to model the thought processes of the brain. It's not going to be a very big brain because you couldn't get all the chips needed for anything close to a human brain into the room right now. It is just possible, however, that the artificial brain came up with Palm's latest product, the Foleo.

Techdirt decided that the launch of the Foleo signals only one thing: that Palm's time as a supplier of portable computers is just about up. It's hard to disagree. I took one look at the Foleo and thought immediately of its ancestors: the Cambridge Computers Z88; the LG Phenom; the Psion Series 5. All quite dead with the exception of the Series 5, which lives on, in a fashion, inside big rubbery cases designed to bounce off the ground. It's a small market, the worker's portable computer, but it's the only one that has ever spelled any form of success for things that look vaguely like a small PC.

When the Phenom came out, I thought it would be a far better bet than a PC for writing stuff on the move. It had a near full-sized keyboard. It had a modem and claimed to be able to do email. It ran Windows CE 2.0, so was meant to be able to run cut-down versions of Word and Excel. And it weighed far less than a regular laptop. There was only one small problem. It didn't really do all those things at all well. To get Word files in and out of it, you needed a PC. And the email client was Pocket Outlook, which didn't really like sending or receiving emails. Nice idea; hopeless implementation.

Ten years on, enter the Foleo.

Except this portable computer doesn't even have the modem. No sir. To get emails, you need to connect though Bluetooth to a smartphone. The cheery optimism of Palm just rings through on the press release: "Palm believes that most smartphones based on Windows Mobile should work with little or no modification. Smartphones based on operating systems from Research in Motion, Apple, and Symbian likely can be supported with a modest software effort."

There's no guarantee Palm is actually going to put in any of that modest software effort. Anyone used to the apparently random support for phones in iSync will know all about that. Treo support is built in, the company says. That's a relief. Although it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that Palm could make the Foleo incompatible with the company's other pieces of hardware. Palm software has steadily gone from restricted but rock solid to less restricted but flaky as pastry.

And it seems that Palm is not all that bothered about supporting smartphones - even though that is the one thing that is crucial to the company selling Foleos outside the small base of users that have a Treo and would like to carry two machines to get email from the one device. Further down the release Palm says: "Palm will produce tools to allow smartphone manufacturers to make devices compatible with the Foleo mobile companion."

I can just see the queue of smartphone makers forming to support a machine with doubtful future sales. These guys have enough trouble porting the likes of Symbian and Windows Mobile to their own hardware, let alone trying to work out how to support somebody else's.

In its favour, the Foleo seems to have WiFi. It's not clear whether the machine will actually collect email that way. I also hope, for Palm's sake, that it copes better with real-world WiFi networks than the LifeDrive, which is barely able to cope with many public hotspots and which resets itself when presented with the wireless network at MIT. And that is the core problem with these cut-down computers. Their makers never really test them properly under real-world conditions. You only want them to get email, do a bit of browsing and handle a text file or a spreadsheet. Yet, they always come up short. You find the browser does not support any commonly used form of Javascript, the networking only works on the most well-behaved networks, the email client has trouble with attachments it does not recognise (that is, most of them) and strange little codes end up where you thought you put pound signs in your files.

Palm says the Microsoft compatibility comes through "a version" of Documents To Go from Dataviz. Played that game before - no doubt you need to upgrade that software to be able to do anything useful. The browser seems to be Opera, so it's not all bad.

But, even with all that in mind, surely the battery life makes it all worthwhile? Palm has claimed five hours. Now, that could be a realistic five hours or it could be measured in laptop-battery hours, which means something more like three-and-a-half.

If only Apple hadn't killed off the 12in Powerbook.

(If you think I'm being too hard on Palm, consider this. I use Macs. There is no good reason why I should consider using a Windows Mobile PDA with these machines. Yet, I do. Despite the fact the HP handheld I have crashes with disturbing regularity and demands that software updates are handled through Virtual PC or Parallels, it still syncs far more reliably than my last Palm device and deals with WiFi and Bluetooth better. Palm should have the Mac market sown up. But it doesn't. That says a lot about the company's ability to deliver, in my opinion.)

1 TrackBack

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: ...or you could just buy a laptop.

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.hackingcough.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/158

In the olden days, Palm made a pretty good stab at a PDA with limited resources. Then they got big and found that they were launching more dogs than winners. Then came the Foleo: a product that didn't have to... Read More