What the Heck is a 'Mobile Companion' Anyway

Network Computing's technology editors love shiny new gadgets. The Foleo -- Palm's new "mobile companion" created instant discussion among their ranks on the system's usability, use cases -- and future. Follow their debate and then let us know what you...

May 31, 2007

10 Min Read
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Network Computing's technology editors love shiny new gadgets. The Foleo -- Palm's new "mobile companion" created instant discussion among their ranks on the system's usability, use cases -- and future. Follow their debate and then let us know what you think.

Sean Ginevan: Palm's new announcement, marketed as a "new category of mobile device," straddles the line between a PDA and a full blown UMPC (ultra mobile PC). I was initially excited that this would mark the first entry of Palm's Linux platform however, while the device does run Linux, it is not the version of Linux that will power forthcoming Treos and will allow for both Palm OS and Linux OS applications to run.

It's unclear just how useful the Foleo will be, it does include Documents To Go to allow for the viewing, creation and editing of Microsoft Office files, however such conversion programs often fail to completely render the same experience in dealing with complex documents as Office (or even Office Mobile) do.

I don't see people ditching their laptops in favor of carrying just a Treo and a Foleo and if weight and size are a concern, a true UMPC may be the best bet.

Greg Shipley: Regarding this announcement from Palm my initial response is: I don't get it. With the merging of the traditional PDA and the traditional cell phone nearly complete, I'm guessing within the next 12 months we'll be seeing smartphones that do just about everything a PDA ever could. And UMPCs are already close to smartphone size. Yet somehow there's room for ANOTHER class of device? Heck, outside of having full edit capability of Office docs most smartphones already have the basics of PDAs covered: contacts, tasks, calendars, and email.

I'll go one step further though: I've been watching for the collision of tomorrow's smart phone with today's laptop. Toss in UMPCs like the OQO 02 that are nearly smartphone sized but run full-windows and one could even argue that the collision is right in front of us.

So let me get this straight: With smartphones arguably already consuming the PDA space, laptops shrinking, UMPCs getting to smartphone sized and smartphone's starting to tout laptop-like specs (a 2006 Treo 700wx sports 312 MHz processor, 64 MB built-in RAM, 128 MB Flash ROM, additional storage, etc.), Palm is introducing another class of device to meet what needs, exactly?

As a consumer I have a hard time imagining myself going to go look for a smartphone sidekick. I'm going to look for a smartphone that can cover 90% of the use-cases I'd use a laptop for, and then I'll go get a UMPC if I *really* need a smaller laptop. "Mobile Companion?" I don't think so.

Critical in Chicago...

Demonstration of Palm Foleo By Richard Karpinksi
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Dave Molta: I agree with Greg's major thrust, that Palm's offering seems a little strange.

There seem to be many roads to mobile device convergence, and our inclination is to try to stuff as much functionality into one device as possible (90% of a laptop in a smartphone).The form-factor and battery consumption problems are very real constraints today. We all want small, except we want our screens and keyboards to be big. And we all want long battery life, but we also want lightweight and lots of power-hungry radios.

I think we need to be focusing more on use-cases. I'll take a wild stab and guess that the needs of Greg Shipley are not exactly the same as what the marketing geniuses are looking at in terms of mass-market sales potential.

But beyond that, there are so many specialized use-cases, in so many vertical markets ranging from health care to supply chain. One size doesn't fit all.

So what do you want your mobile device to do for you? What are the key applications? What level of network performance do you need? Are you willing to carry a big rock around in your pocket? What kind of balance are you trying to strike between business and entertainment value? One more question: How much are you willing to pay, up front and monthly?

These questions are obviously open to anyone who might care to comment.

Sean Ginevan: I sat here trying to come to Palm's defense on this one and I came up with a few use cases in their factor:

Many people already carry a smartphone for e-mail and data connectivity. However the main thing people do with smartphones is e-mail which is great until you have a two-hour lull in between meetings or are waiting in an airport. Think of a show like Interop. The first couple of days I lugged around my laptop because I wanted to be able to be a little productive when I wasn't doing meetings and whatnot. Could I have been as productive using either the T-Mobile Dash or Wing that I brought with me (both include QWERTY keyboards and Windows Mobile 6)? Sure. But typing on the somewhat cramped keyboard of a PDA for a protracted period of time gets old. The screen is small and it's really only useful for occasional e-mail (ie, triaging your e-mail box). Trying to really catch up on e-mail is tedious.

Could I have used my laptop to accomplish the same goal (edit the occasional document, view a press release and send/receive e-mail)? Absolutely. However my medium weight IBM T43 is somewhat heavy and was a pain to carry around the show floor by the end of the day. I didn't need the full horsepower of my laptop in most cases (let's ignore the times I was setting up Exchange using Remote Desktop). I could switch to a UMPC, but honestly I like the larger, high resolution screen and keyboard of a true laptop for every day use. Plus, UMPCs are pricey.

Palm doesn't need to have the Foleo run versions of Good or Intellisync or Direct Push for e-mail. That's what the smartphone is for. Presumably, Palm has a Bluetooth synchronization program to keep your smartphone synced with the Foleo and visa versa. If, for $500, I can get a lightweight device that acts as somewhat of an extension of my PDA, it might be useful to me. I can definitely think of times where I'd pop open the Foleo (which is supposedly "Instant On" meaning I can sit down and get right to work without waiting for my T43 to boot up) and check up on e-mail and read a press release or two. Because while I couldn't switch to a Foleo (or Linux, probably) as my every day PC because I use too many Windows apps, I don't use those apps every day and sure as heck not during small bits of downtime during business trips.Now, for the cons:

Frank raises a good point about security. I'm a strong proponent of mobile device management and as an IT admin I don't want these things floating around my enterprise after I spent a considerable amount of time and money to start managing my handhelds. The device is Linux-based, so maybe Novell's new Zenworks for Linux would be able to do some basic management. Otherwise, I would hope the MDM vendors get a client out for this sooner rather than later.

Also, in the analysis I did before, the Foleo doesn't run native versions of office. It runs Documents to Go. Now, Documents to Go does a credible job of translating basic Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint files. However we've all seen marketing decks that fall apart when you open them in competing "Office-capable" products. I used Open Office for awhile but after one Powerpoint after another crapped out on me, I decided to switch back to Office 2003 (I don't have 2007, yet another thing ot add to my wishlist from Microsoft).

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I wish this thing ran Windows Mobile (or even the forthcoming version of Linux that will support Palm apps) so that all of the apps that are on your smartphone will work on your Foleo. Plus, it would allow for native Office support with Office mobile. Futher, it would give the same look and feel as what's on the smartphone (people don't want to switch from one UI to another). But I bet that adding Windows Mobile would have increased the development time and added too much price to the product.

Just my (lengthy) two cents.

Greg Shipley: Good thread! Two quick questions/points:

- The larger screen issue is a really valid requirement, IMO, and it *is* something I've found myself thinking about. Howevever, if one needs/wants a larger screen then what a smartphone or UMPC offers then we're talking about a laptop, plain and simple, no? I see no way of avoiding this until we see really portable projectors come to market, or some sort of sci-fi'y hologram unit...- Larger keyboards - also something I've thought about. Now, I went out and bought one of these but I haven't used it yet with a smartphone, but wouldn't a $20 rubber keyboard solve the problem? (example: http://www.keytools.co.uk/keyboards/images/duraflex_rollup.jpg ) You can literally roll them up and they are very light...

I think the use-cases/points brought up are valid but I still struggle with the justification for a new class of device. Doesn't this still boil down to wanting either a larger form factor (laptop) because of keyboard and screen, or settling for a smartphone? Is all of this saying anything other than "hey, it would be nice if my laptop was a little smaller and lighter?" (To which my response would be, there are smaller and lighter laptops out there...and more coming!)

Jordan Wiens: On May 31, 2007, at 12:19 PM, Greg Shipley wrote:

I'm pretty torn. I'm a big Palm and Linux proponent, but I did have to think long and hard about whether I'd get any use out of the Foleo. In the end, I don't think it's useful for me right now, but there have been times in my life where something of that form factor would have been perfect.As to the instant-on, instant-off, maybe I'm just spoiled because I've got a Mac, but that's exactly what my laptop does right now, so I fail to see this as an issue. My laptop is only very, very rarely actually "off". It's almost always suspended and opening up the lid or closing it again is all the "power switch" I need.

I've had a number of different external keyboards for my Palm over the years and they just don't cut it. I invariably end up leaving it at home and either going with the laptop or the Palm by itself. Most of the keyboards were cute fold-up ones that weren't much bigger than the Palm itself so size wasn't an issue, but it was just too much of a hassle to set up somewhere I could use it, connect to the Palm (whether wireless or wired, there's usually still some connect process). The biggest downside is that with any of the foldable or flexible keyboards, you can't use your lap to type on. Think how often you pop open your laptop on your lap to type external PDA keyboards don't cut it.

That's basically where I ended up. That said, I sure wouldn't mind testing out a Foleo, but I think that in the end, I'd rather just keep the $500 for whenever the next /real/ Linux-based Palm PDA is finally released. Alternatively, I'll go with an openmoko phone. I had a Zaurus Linux-based PDA many years ago and it had as many features as any PDA I've seen since (battery life excluded).

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