Thoughts about the Palm Foleo

I looked at the Foleo and played with one while I was at Linux World a few weeks ago, but it is so restrictive in what it can do that I was completely unimpressed.

First of all, according to one of the people at the booth, it will only work with a select set of Treo’s; mostly the newer ones. A colleague I was with had just gotten a Treo 650, and the person at the booth said that it wouldn’t work with that model of Treo. (WTF?) Furthermore, it will only do e-mail (POP or IMAP) by linking with the Treo over bluetooth connection and letting the Treo pull down the e-mail and store it on the Treo. Given that it only has 128 megs of RAM and 256 megs of Flash, it just doesn’t have enough storage apparently to run a stand-alone e-mail application, which is a little bit scary. The limited amount of memory is probably why it is using Opera as a web browser, which previous experience on the N800 has largely unimpressed me in terms of compatibility with Web 2.0 sites that aggressively use AJAX or flash.

So OK, it’s not supposed to be a laptop. But the problem is, for 0.2 pounds more, I can get a laptop. Let’s review the critical statistics, shall we? The Foleo costs $499, weighs 2.5 pounds, and has a size of 10.5″ by 6.7″ by 0.9″. As stated before it has 128 megs of RAM and 256 megs of flash, with a SD slot for expansion purposes, and it has a claimed 5-6 hours of battery life. But let’s compare that with my IBM X41 which I recently purchased off of eBay for $800. It has 1.5 gigs of memory, and 60 gigs of hard disk. It has two batteries; with the 4 cell battery it weighs 2.7 pounds and delivers 2 hours of battery life, and with the 8 cell battery it weighs 3.2 pounds and delivers 4 hours of battery life. So true, even with the 8 cell battery the X41 is 1.7 pounds heavier and still has slightly less battery life. But you can do a lot more with the X41! Furthermore, the Foleo’s weight advantage is somewhat nullified by the fact that you have to bring the Treo around to do certain activities, and the Treo has to be powered on since the Foleo is mostly designed around being a remote large screen for the Treo.

At the end of the day it’s all about tradeoffs. Perhaps if enough companies created enough killer apps that could fit in 128 meg of ram for the Foleo, it might be useful enough to justifying buying it. I hear for example, that even though the Foleo doesn’t have any kind of PIM functionality, a 3rd party ISV is planning on making a product available that will provide calendar and contact functionality that can sync Palm PDA’s. No word on how much it will cost or how usable it will be, but with enough applications, maybe Foleo could be useful enough to justify its size/weight. I imagine that these apps will probably be commercial ones, since open source apps like Evolution will probably have difficulty fitting in the Foleo’s constrained environment. 🙂

And, of course, it’s a lot cheaper than my used X41 laptop, never mind a brand-new Lenovo X61s, which could run 2 or 3 kilobucks fully outfitted with the 4 gigs of memory and 160 gig/7200 rpm drive. However, as a road warrior, my priorities are not just weight, but functionality. A 2.5 pound solid-state laptop with only 128 megs of memory which massively restricts what I can do is not a good use of the space in my laptop bag. What I’m waiting for is the next generation of the Thinkpad X series which has a solid state disk — which shouldn’t be that far off — and the elimination of the spinning magnetic media would mean that we should have something with Foleo’s battery life without the Foleo’s limited usefulness. Sure, maybe I will need to wait another year or two for my perfect laptop (12″, 1024×768 LED display, at least 60 gigs solid state disk, at least 2-4 gigs memory, Intel core 2 or follow-on processor, < 3 pounds, > 5 hours useful lifetime) to become available, but the technology to do this exists today; it’s just a matter of making it affordable. But given that kind of long-term future, I’m willing to settle for now with either 2 or 4 hour battery life, and a slightly heavier laptop, than to use something today with a desperately slow ARM processor and only 128 megs of memory. The weight/size savings and the increased battery life of the Foleo isn’t a fair tradeoff given its very limited capabilities.

This is all really too bad, because if Palm is counting on the Foleo to allow it to succeed, I think the concept has some massive shortcomings, much like their claimed LifeDrive product, which didn’t last very long. And I really like the Palm company; I still haven’t found better PDA functionality on a decade-old Palm design compared to what is available on all of the Nokia phones I’ve looked at, the WinCE phones/PDA’s, the N800, etc. So I want Palm as a company to stick around. But with Treo getting eclipsed by newer smart phones, and the Foleo not getting particularly good buzz by folks reviewing it — and after I played with it, I have to agree with the majority of the reviewers that this is not the Next Big Thing — I’m not sure how much longer Palm is going to be around.