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There has always been a fine line between these devices, but that line is blurring and will continue to blur. I don't think the Foleo fits into either the information access or work creation category

Sixth Time NOT a Charm for Ultralights!

Monday, June 04, 2007
Palm is having another go at ultralight computers. It all started with the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 in March 1983 with the first instant-on handheld computer that took the world (at least the world of journalists) by storm. It cost about $600 and had only 8 KB of memory (upgradable to 24 KB). A year later, the 102 was introduced with 24 KB of memory. All had built-in modems. Only a few months earlier, Epson announced the HX-20, but it was too big for most people.

     Epson HX-20

Throughout the 1980s and into the '90s, we saw many attempts at small, battery-operated devices we could carry and use in the field. In 1989, Poqet introduced its Poqet PC, a small DOS-based system powered by AA batteries that ran many DOS-based programs and had a gray-scale screen you could almost see. HP jumped in in April 1991 with its first handheld, the HP 95LX that ran MS DOS 3.22 and had a 240x128 black-and-white screen. This first HP handheld was a hit with its built-in HP scientific calculator and Lotus 1-2-3. It also had a calendar and appointment book function and, soon after it was introduced, a startup called IntelliLink developed a program to synchronize the HP 95LX with a PC's PIM program.

          Poqet PC                       HP 95LX

Just a note, a company known as RadioMail sold a combination of the HP-95LX and an Ericsson RAM Mobile Data wireless modem in a nice black case about the size of a hard back book. The two devices were about the same size and the combination was, I believe, the first true wireless email device on the market. There was not push email (that came later from Research-in-Motion) and you had to have a special RadioMail email address but it worked great and many of us still have fond memories of showing off our ability to send and receive emails wirelessly!

Meanwhile, Microsoft began developing the Windows CE operating system and envisioned a whole new class of devices. Microsoft wanted a larger HP handheld weighing less than 3 lbs with a larger keyboard and screen that would be what I then described as the executive's communication device. The first HP to use this OS was introduced in March 1997 (HP 300LX).

Microsoft convinced several companies including HP, IBM, Sharp, NEC and Vadem to build its vision. Products were conceived in 1996 and began hitting the market in 1997. The screens were difficult to see, the devices weighed more and cost more than projected and, there is no way to be polite here, Microsoft really messed up the mail client. They all had built-in modems, so you could check your email via dial-up, and they supported wireless technologies such as PC Card wireless modems on several networks including RAM Mobile Data, ARDIS, CDPD and some cellular networks.

       HP 300LX


The problem was that Microsoft assumed when you received an email via dial-up you would answer it via dial-up, likewise, if you received email via wireless you would answer via wireless. This meant two inboxes and two outboxes with no way of moving information between them.


I was a big believer in those days and was disappointed when I discovered Microsoft's mistakes, the cost of the devices and their poor screens. This entire group of products has long since been replaced with the full notebook products of today and we are seeing new, smaller products fully capable of Windows XP and even Vista.


About that time (1994), Jeff Hawkins came to see me. I remember him sitting there showing me an early Alpha version of the Palm Pilot using Graffiti, the language invented to make it easy to enter data with a stylus. He connected it to my notebook and showed me how easy it was to bring my calendar and phone book over to the Palm. I told him no one would buy his little handheld because it was simply a standalone calendar and PIM device without wireless and people would not want to bother with wired synchronization.

   Palm Pilot


Fast forward to today. We all know Jeff and his companies (Palm and Handspring) produced products that changed the way many of us work, and the Treo and newer Palm devices are still widely used.


I was wrong about Jeff's first offering, the Palm Pilot. However, I have to repeat myself with his latest effort, the Foleo. This time, I believe I will be proven right. I don't think the Foleo will be a gangbuster success. There are other, hotter products about to be released that enable you to do more and they have more built-in features and functions at the same price or less.


What Is Palm's Foleo?

First indications are that the Foleo is a notebook-like device with a 10-inch screen, weighing in at 2.5 pounds and running Linux. It was reportedly designed to be an adjunct to a smartphone that can be connected to a wide-area wireless network, enabling the Foleo to send and receive email messages. The thought behind this product appears to be that a device with a larger screen and larger keyboard will be attractive to those who want to send and receive email while on the road who do not like using a small screen and keyboard.
                          Palm Foleo


According to reports published on and CNET's, the Foleo won't synchronize your calendar, only your email and address book, it has a battery that will power the device for five hours and uses "an underpowered processor," especially when it comes to video. It does have built-in Wi-Fi. Foleo's price tag is reportedly $499 after a $100 rebate and, according to CNET, Palm believes people will want to buy one to be more productive without having to carry a bulky laptop on short trips.


My Take


I find the Foleo to be too little too late. According to Intel and others driving WiMAX, we are about to see a number of ultraportables come to market with built-in wide-area and Wi-Fi wireless capabilities. Full-fledged notebook computers that weigh less than three pounds, including some with built in Wi-Fi and wide-area wireless, are already available. Yes, you have to wait while they boot up, which is a pain, but if you have a Treo or a BlackBerry, you know there are no surprises waiting for you on email and you can open your notebook and answer the ones that will take more than a few minutes when you have the time, plus you have your normal suite of applications and files.


I think only a small number of customers will be interested in ultraportables. Smartphones are the least-selling segment of the wireless phone market and three-pound-or-less notebook sales account for less than 2% of the notebook market. The only advantages I can see to the Foleo are that you don't have to wait for it to boot up and you can use the built-in Bluetooth connection between the Foleo and a smartphone.


The Foleo will be available this summer and we will see if the second time I challenged Jeff I will be right or wrong again! Palm has part of the right idea, but millions of us already have access to our email and attachments using BlackBerrys, Treos, Q Phones or Samsung or Nokia devices. I don't know the numbers, but many people I know still carry a BlackBerry and a phone, for example, and those of us who need a larger keyboard and screen also want a full set of applications and mass storage available to us when we are on the road.


If you go back in time, you will find that the premise for all of these devices was to provide access to the information we want and need when we are not at our desks. The HP 95 LX was the first of this breed, and I really thought Windows CE devices such as the HP Jornada would have appealed to executives who simply wanted to keep in touch.


Now there is an entirely new class of device heading our way―the ultraportable, which is a portable computer smaller than a notebook but larger than a cell phone. It will run our standard applications and have built-in wireless, a nice screen and small keyboard. It is being built based on the belief that we will buy these devices so we can take our desktop Internet with us when we leave the office. I believe this reasoning is faulty and I categorize wireless mobile products into two classifications: information access or work creation.


An information access device can be as simple as a phone, PDA, BlackBerry or smartphone. It is used primarily to access information needed while in the field: email (with attachments), calendar, address book and perhaps access to corporate databases. A work creation device has a near full-size keyboard, large screen, all of the applications that are run on the desktop and lots of storage for files.


During a day on the road, I use my information access device all of the time and my notebook only when I will be in the same location for awhile and want to work within my applications or perhaps write longer emails.


I further classify devices as unconscious vs. conscious carry. An unconscious-carry device goes with me even if I am only going out for a few minutes. With a conscious-carry device (e.g., my laptop), as I am preparing to leave I mentally ask, "Do I really need this on this trip?" On a day trip, the answer is usually no, but for longer trips I carry it so I have its capabilities in the evenings and in case I end up waiting at an airport.


There has always been a fine line between these devices, but that line is blurring and will continue to blur. I don't think the Foleo fits into either the information access or work creation category, and what will start out as a conscious-carry may become a no-carry. My ideal is a BlackBerry with an ultralight notebook computer. The ULN would have storage, a good color screen, near full-sized keyboard and it would be instant-on for ease of use. I would want a single charger for both that worked in a hotel room, car and an airplane, and the ULN would have built-in Wi-Fi, wireless USB 2.0 and wide-area network access. This combination would be most useful to me, but I realize different people have different preferences. Some only want to carry a regular wireless phone and find the idea of having email show up on a device uninvited to be annoying. For me, my cell phone ring is uninvited and annoying, which is why few people know my wireless phone number but most know my email address.


The computer industry has been trying to build the ultimate device for a long time and several times it appeared as though it almost got it right. With today's technology advances and high-speed wide-area networks, I am hopeful there are some really great choices on the horizon. I don't think the Palm Foleo is one of them!


Andrew M. Seybold


COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

David Robins - 06/06/2007 07:59:27

Thanks for the history lesson on mobile computing devices. I was one that lived through these.
I missed a mention of the Apple Newton and the unsuccessful four company effort (Genral Magic, Motorola, Sony, AT&T) in ~1994-6 with the Motorola Envoy and Motorola Marco (Newton) with dial-up and DataTAC (ARDIS) wide-area communication capabilities.

Andrew Seybold - 06/06/2007 09:38:08

Dave--know you were part of all of this, and I elected to not mention some of the devices you mentioned--have another article coming up with talks specfically about Wireless and handheld devices such as the Enjoy and, of course the Newton and it's over hyped arrival--it could have been a great machine over time-had it not been hyped so badly before it was released--have to wonder if the iPHONE will follow in the same foot-steps.