CES 2009 – Palm PrÄ“

Palm has been on a pretty horrendous losing streak of late, but earlier today at CES, they launched both their new webOS and a device, the prÄ“ smartphone, that runs on it. Reaction to the phone and especially the software has been nearly universally positive, with Ars Technica noting that the ‘deck of cards’ multitasking paradigm makes most existing phone OSes seem out of date in comparison.

Palm Prē

It certainly looks impressive so far and investors seem to agree, with PALM stock up nearly 35% on the day.

Palm Foleo Scrapped… Through Their Blog

When Palm launched the ‘Foleo’, I was aghast over the idea. While smartphones are convergence devices, aimed at reducing the number of things a person needs to carry to be connected, the Foleo goes against the grain. To make it even worse, at 2.5 lbs and with its 10″ display, it easily pokes into compact notebook size. Meanwhile its grossly underpowered foundation meant it couldn’t use Youtube properly. Essentially, it was a $599-$100MIR failure to happen.

Yesterday, Palm’s CEO, Ed Colligan, scrapped the entire project before a single production sample shipped to customers. Citing costs of supporting two different platforms (Foleo does not run on Palm’s future Linux-based OS) as well as less than enthusiastic market reaction to the Foleo in its present form, Mr Colligan announced the cancellation of the project along with a $10 million charge. Not exactly pocket change to Palm, but I agree with the CEO, short term pain for less long term pain. The only thing I wonder about is why it took them so long to come to the conclusion that the Foleo would be difficult to sell. After all, they are nearing the shipment date.

Through the hubbub of activity, I also noticed the rather curious method of breaking such important news. It was delivered on Palm’s blog, written by the CEO. There’s no mention of the cancellation in Palm’s press centre at all. Does Mr. Colligan believe in the more intimate setting of a blog? Or perhaps he wanted to make the announcement more personal in nature, due to the outcry by people, like you and I, across the web?

Palm Foleo Is A Sub-Par Notebook

There are sub-notebooks. Now, there are also sub-par notebooks. Palm, yesterday, launched the Foleo. Touted as a smartphone companion the Foleo packs a 10″ screen and a (relatively) full-sized keyboard. The cost of these amenities is a 2.5lb weight, easily into compact notebook territory.

But that’s not all. At it’s $599 – $100 mail in rebate price, it would be a good value if it had compact notebook capabilities. Unfortunately, it falls far from the mark. Serving as an over-sized smartphone, the Foleo is only capable of writing emails, editing documents and browsing the internet, in a limited fashion. Indeed, when pressed Jeff Hawkins, the lead designer of the Foleo stated that it is not powerful enough to use services such as YouTube.

It’s probable that the Foleo uses a platform based off handheld hardware, ARM-based processor and all. This could very well be the reason behind its limited capabilities. It does not include a hard drive (slots are available for flash memory storage) and comes with 256MB RAM. It runs a stripped down version of Linux and has Opera 9 for Devices, further evidence to a possible ARM-based processor. On the other hand, it also incorporates Wi-Fi, which means it won’t be completely useless without a connected phone.

Palm may be onto something with the Foleo; however I believe their implementation is a rather poor one. I believe it was a poor idea to design and market something as a companion/accessory to a smartphone. One of the main reasons of the smartphone is to be able to ditch the laptop unless its computing power is absolutely necessary. As a convergence device, the smartphone is designed to reduce the number of gadgets being carried around – this goes the opposite way. It’s only as powerful as a smartphone but as big as a compact notebook. It’s essentially a glorified keyboard and screen.

Instead, I see a market for very lower powered but also very small laptops. Sony, ASUS, Fujitsu and other computer companies are putting out compact, but very expensive laptops in the 10-11″ range. While dual core processors and large hard drives may be attractive to some, I believe there is a large business market that would be perfectly happy with a more limited but cheaper alternative. Most corporations buy laptops for employees to write documents, email, web, and VPN’ing. You don’t need a dual core CPU, 2GB RAM, 100GB hard drive and Vista to do that.

Instead, I predict a new class of laptops which are in the 3lb or lower range, have 10-11″ displays, either a high-end ARM-based processor or, more likely, a very low power embedded x86 processor – something like the Geode or VIA Eden. Couple that with 512MB – 1GB of RAM and a small 4-8GB of NAND flash and run a limited version of Linux or Windows CE and I think you’d have a winner. I’d imagine you could get away with selling it for not much more than the Foleo, but have it much more functional. In its current state, the Foleo is just way underpowered. That could change in the future.

Hopefully Palm didn’t shoot itself in the foot too bad, opening up a new product category but leading it off with a no-goer.