Palm Foleo – Folded Up And Gone

Seldom in the history has a device gone from being center stage at a premium technology conference to the garbage bin as Palm’s (PALM) ill-conceived Foleo. It was launched with much fanfare at the AllThingsD conference back in June 2007. Within minutes of Jeff Hawkins showing off the device – a portable disk-less computer that acted as an adjunct to the Treo, the entire audience tuned out and started tapping out emails on their Blackberrys. It was in jest that I wrote then: Foleo, more like fold-up-and-go!

palm_foleo.jpgToday, Palm CEO Ed Colligan made it official. There are many reasons the device was dead-on-arrival. The biggest reason is that it is a disk-less device that needs constant connectivity to be useful. In other words, it is a device for a world where network connectivity is ubiquitous – either via 3G connections, WiMAX or WiFi. We are not there yet, and won’t be there for a few more years.

The New York Times’ John Markoff is one of the few gadget lovers who seem to be heartbroken about the early demise of the device. “The little time I had to play with a prototype device earlier this year was enough to underscore the potential of a disk-less portable,” he writes, pointing to web services that are popping up all over and don’t need much local computing resources. That might be, but again without connectivity, any device like Foleo is nothing but a piece of very expensive plastic.

Foleo was no different than the much hyped desktop brethern, the NetPC and/or the Networked Computer, that hogged the headlines in the late 1990s, but were promptly KO-ed by the PC, instead of killing the PC.

PCs got cheaper and cheaper, obviating the need for a NetPC. It will be no different this time around – instead the laptops continue to become lighter, cheaper, and more powerful. Connectivity options keep getting crammed into the PC platform. Today it is WiFi and 3G. Tomorrow, if Intel has its way it will be WiMAX.

The promise of pure networked computers like Foleo often runs into our desire to have disks on which we want to hoard stuff – power point presentations to junior’s videos or just the whole season of 24. Foleo didn’t solve any problem, and it didn’t do anything special. In the end it was nothing more than a utopian dream that was soon going to turn into a fiscal nightmare. So far it cost them less than $10 million, the WSJ reports. (I wonder how much it cost Palm to conduct this very expensive experiment.) It is good that Palm management woke up and realized its folly. Full marks to them for this eyes-wide-open move.