Hands-On With the Palm Foleo

In the spring of 1995, I was invited to the office of Jeff Hawkins, who had recently founded a company called Palm Computing.

I knew Jeff from his days at Grid, and he wanted to discuss a new concept he had for handheld computing.

Apple had already released the first PDA, the Newton, and had watched it bite the dust, as Jeff had predicted. So what was going to be different about Palm?

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Since Jeff had come from Grid, the first pen-based computing company, he knew that a computer would never understand any old handwriting.

Instead of teaching a computer to read chicken scratch, users should learn a gesture-based alphabet and use it to communicate with the device.

So Jeff created Graffiti, with simple alphabet characters that a handheld device could recognize.

That day in his office, he showed me the now-famous wood block of what was to become the first Palm Pilot PDA.

Six months later, Jeff and his team unveiled his version of the PDA, and a new category of handheld devices was born.

Jeff was also at the forefront of introducing another new category of mobile devices known as smart phones when he created the Treo, launching what today is a booming segment of the cellular-phone market.

This quick history lesson is meant to show that when Jeff Hawkins says he has a revolutionary new device in the works, he has earned the right to be listened to.

Hawkins calls this new category of handhelds "Mobile Companions," and his new device is called the Foleo.

It sports a full-size keyboard, a 10.2-inch bright color screen, and has an SD card slot, VGA out, USB, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

The base unit itself comes with only 256MB of built-in RAM, but it has a CompactFlash card slot under the battery so you can expand memory there or via the SD card slot.

Jeff says that he has been working on this concept for five years, and that it is the most exciting product he has worked on.

What makes this device so interesting is that it works as a companion to smart phones such as the Treo or a Windows mobile phone, but with the right software link, it could even support RIM's BlackBerry phones, Symbian-based phones or even Apple phones.

Since it has its own processor and runs Linux, it could also conceivably be a standalone Linux laptop if third-party software vendors decided to support it.

However, Foleo's real genius is in the way it works with a smart phone. Hawkins demonstrated its use to me with his own Treo.

The device has only two buttons. The first is the on/off button, which delivers instant on/off performance.

The second button is for e-mail — pressing it instantly takes you to your e-mail box.

In Jeff's case, he had two e-mail accounts: one was based on Palm e-mail and the other was Versamail, which was tied to a full Outlook Exchange server.

When he logged onto the Versamail account, it looked just like a normal Outlook client on a full Windows machine.

When you first pair Foleo to your Bluetooth phone, it brings all of your e-mails to Foleo's e-mail software so that they can be read, responded to, and filed on Foleo.

In essence, you are mirroring the content that is on the smart phone on Foleo, but now you are able to view it on a large screen and respond via a full-size keyboard.

Another nice feature is that it can open all Word and PowerPoint documents, and since it has a VGA out, it can even be used to deliver PowerPoint presentations, just like a larger laptop.

It also can handle a full Web browser, including support for PDF files and Flash, and it delivers a rich Web-browsing experience in a small package.

To respond, you need to be near a Wi-Fi spot or use the smartphone as a modem via its Bluetooth connection, which is why Hawkins calls Foleo a "mobile companion" and emphasizes the role of the smartphone in this type of digital lifestyle.

It weighs about 2.4 pounds but feels much lighter, and even with its small battery it can deliver 5 full hours of use (even while using Wi-Fi the entire time).

The large screen supports 1024-by-600 or 1024-by-768 VGA resolution.

Navigation is done through a TrackPoint nub in the keyboard, and it has a roller wheel below the keyboard to provide fast and easy scrolling.

Foleo's price at launch will be $499, and it should be on the market by mid-summer.

The device will only be available direct from Palm's Web site initially, but it should eventually be available through traditional retail outlets as well.

I have no doubt that Hawkins' Foleo will launch a new category of portable devices — I can easily see how it will be attractive to road warriors.

Indeed, mobile workers carry laptops and cell phones or smart phones because they need to have access to all of the features and capabilities inherent in a laptop computing environment.

Foleo would give them a light, lower-cost option that could make it easy to hit the road without a laptop.

But, whether planned or not, Hawkins may have actually hit on a more powerful mobile-computing idea.

Since this is a small, lightweight Linux computer, it could eventually become a new stand-alone portable-computing platform that the Linux or open-source crowd embraces.

Imagine what could happen if the open-source movement decides to start building software applications for this platform.

I think it is plausible that Foleo will become the darling of this movement and help get Linux into the mainstream mobile marketplace, perhaps even challenging the dominance of the Windows portable computers.

I know that might be a stretch, but this device is the exact type of mobile e-mail machine I have personally wanted for over a decade.

Because it can handle a full Web-browsing experience, it provides a serious alternative to taking a full laptop with me every time I hit the road.

Jeff said Foleo is the most exciting device he's worked on, and I think he might be right.

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.