Late yesterday on the Official Palm Blog, Ed Colligan, CEO of Palm, announced the last-minute cancellation of the Palm Foleo. I was surprised the device failed before it was even released, but I was not surprised it failed. It was a flawed, product-driven concept from the beginning.
The approximately $500 "companion device" was designed like a lightweight notebook PC but was intended to be simpler and easier to use. It was designed to work with your Palm Treo via Bluetooth. The Treo would provide the connectivity to the network and the Foleo would provide a full size keyboard and a 10-inch screen.
Palm made much of its instant-on operating system and other differences from a traditional laptop, but the truth is that most of those differences added up to limitations and incompatibilities with few compensating advantages. Instant on is nice, but for $500 you can get a bare bones Windows laptop that will run Firefox and IE (the Palm browser is reportedly not compatible with many websites), handle multimedia files (there is no version of Flash, Adobe Acrobat or other popular media formats), and handle office documents (same issue). A Windows laptop could also take a wireless modem or connect to your phone via Bluetooth, thus duplicating the coolness factor of a device paired with your handheld.
Laptops do have limitations, it's true. Many are heavier than you'd like (though not all). They take a while to boot up (though not long if you put them on standby instead of shutting down every time). But most of the salespeople, corporate execs and gadget freaks who might be the target market for a companion device like this already have a laptop -- and are they really going to carry two devices or leave their laptop at home when they still can't open a Word doc?
I think the killer app was supposed to be email. You can use the larger screen and keyboard to advantage when dealing with email in a way that the thumb keypads on smartphones don't allow. The thing is, without support for the attachments that come in your email and a standard browser for following links, you still can't really get through all your email. More to the point, though, even if you could, I don't know why I wouldn't just want a Windows or MacOS notebook. Palm would essentially be trying to market an alternate operating system (alternative even to the Palm OS) and never be able to close the feature gap entirely with its more established competitors.
A more interesting device in this space is the HTC Advantage. This compact device is a fully functioning Windows Mobile device that includes the phone, thus providing voice and data connectivity without a separate device. You can really only use the phone functionality when you are using the laptop functionality as well due to the size of the device. (It requires a headset or the speakerphone.) But you could use leave your phone behind while walking around the office or somewhere you don't care to be reached and still be connected for data. Most importantly, though, Windows Mobile provides full compatibility with all of your favorite browsers, media types and Office apps. This more capable device I can see a busy executive taking to meetings or on short business trips in place of a bulkier laptop.
Ed Colligan of Palm clearly does not grasp this simple logic. In his blog entry, he chalks the cancellation up to the need for his company to focus on their next generation operating system and the smartphones it will run on. This is the right strategy, but he still doesn't see why the Foleo was a bad idea. He says:
Jeff Hawkins and I still believe that the market category defined by Foleo has enormous potential. When we do Foleo II it will be based on our new platform, and we think it will deliver on the promise of this new category.
This blindness to market reality suggests product-centric thinking. Ed has identified a real set of problems with many of today's laptops but he sees his smartphones as the center of things and is building product ideas around them. If he were user-driven, Palm's CEO might consider building a standalone device like HTC's or companion device with Windows Mobile.