Will Palm’s Foleo Fulfill its Promises?

I’ve been burned more than once by lighter-than-laptop computing devices that have failed to fulfill their promise. Still, I can’t help but be excited about Palm’s Foleo mobile companion.

The 2.5-pound device, which Palm announced recently and plans to begin shipping later this summer, will sport the display and keyboard of a typical notebook computer and the battery life and instant on/off capability of a handheld device.

This mix of features is what I’ve long sought in a mobile computer: something that’s functional enough to write and browse with, but light enough to carry everywhere without stopping to calculate whether the added load is worth the typically short run-time delivered by notebook batteries.

As I mentioned, however, I’ve been disappointed before. Take my IBM z50 Workpad, a pleasantly shrunken Thinkpad that weighed about 2.5 pounds, and carried a very nice keyboard and a passably large 640×480-pixel display. However, despite its form-factor attributes, the z50 fell far short of its promise, and was discontinued very shortly after it began shipping.

The z50’s biggest problems were software related–and the same goes for most other devices of this type. For starters, the z50 shipped with the lousy Windows CE 2.11, which sported so-so Pocket Office applications, a terrible version of Pocket Internet Explorer and not much else.

Back in 1999, when the Workpad z50 first shipped, the market for mobile device software was small compared to that for desktop and notebook computers, and things haven’t changed too much in the years since.

With so many different form factors and resource profiles, it’s tough to build applications that will run on many different devices, and there’s so much change in the mobile device space that users are in constant danger of seeing their devices drop out of application support matrices.

For the z50, there was never an upgrade path to access the improvements that Microsoft subsequently made to Windows CE, as IBM discontinued the product almost immediately, and Microsoft dumped the MIPS architecture that powered the z50 in favor of a focus solely on ARM chips.

Now, I was aware of the z50’s software failings when I picked one up in 2001 for about a fifth of what it originally had sold for, but I had plans to work around WinCE. I ran NetBSD on the z50 for a time, but the arrangement never worked well enough to make it past the hacky-experimental stages with me.

The fact that I was able to load a real operating system onto my z50 didn’t mean the device was capable of running that operating system well. After all, these sorts of devices are, by definition, underpowered compared to regular notebooks, which means that even if you’re able to get your hands on some decent software, you can’t necessarily expect your super-mobile computer to run the software well.

I don’t expect Palm’s forthcoming mobile companion to boast a broad catalog of made-for-Foleo applications, and even though the product’s Linux innards will likely allow for more software flexibility than we’ve seen from other devices of this sort, I’m not banking on that flexibility either.

Rather, what makes me most optimistic that the Foleo might succeed where other products have failed is the Foleo’s apparent fitness as a simple terminal for Web-based applications.

Even if the rest of the software that ships with the Foleo ends up stinking, as long as the device gets the browser part right, it’ll offer users a way around the resource, application and upgrade limitations that have held back its predecessors.

Based on what Palm has announced about the Foleo so far, it looks as though the device will have what it takes to do the Web well: The Foleo will ship with a Web browser from Opera; with a 1024×600-pixel display that will render Web pages without weird reformatting; and with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios for Internet connectivity.

In order for the Foleo really to shine, its browser will need to offer some sort of offline application support, the likes of which Google is beta-testing now in the form of its Gears project. Opera has stated that it’s working on offline application support, but we’ll have to wait and see how that shakes out.