(Warning: IT pundit on the loose!)
Earlier this week, Palm announced a widely-trailed project that they've been working on for three or four years, to widespread puzzlement: the Foleo. Priced at £250-300, it resembles an underpowered diskless notebook computer, running a stripped-down version of Linux and some apps familiar to Palm users (Documents to Go, Versamail) and the Opera web browser.
There's been much puzzlement over what's going on, with many Palm devotees turning their nose up at it and opining that Palm are committing corporate suicide with a machine that's overpriced and specced like a 2000 laptop at 2007 laptop prices.
I think the critics are off track (although they may not be entirely wrong: it's a huge gamble).
Firstly, those of us who already use laptops as our main computer are not the target audience for this box.
Secondly, those of us who like to tinker or play games or do lots of weird shit with our computers are not the target audience either.
There might be a customer base among folks who already have a desktop PC, and who need to work away from their desk some of the time, but who can't afford/don't want a full laptop. It covers the basics, for that role. But to be competitive in that niche, it really needs to cost half as much, and it needs a much better battery life. I'm typing this on a Sony Vaio TX3 that weighs the same, has an 8 hour battery life and an 80Gb hard drive, and runs full-blown desktop Linux or Windows XP pro. The only thing the Foleo has over the Vaio for my purposes is the "ouch" factor if I sit on it or drop it or someone steals it. But I'm not the target market either. (Are we getting the picture yet?)
My analysis, for what it's worth, is that Jeff Hawkins is really after business users, and has said so all along. So how's he planning on hooking them?
My gut feeling is that Palm has another shoe to drop, in the shape of a Web 2.0 system that the Foleo plugs into. If Palm have invested in the server-side software to push out a huge, powerful integrated web application suite, then the Foleo is really just a thin terminal; what will sell it is the back-end service, not the hardware. (And indeed, six months to a year ago, Palm were advertising for software engineers with a background in Linux server-side application programming.) As was ever the case with Palm in the old days, when the relatively feeble Pilot went head-to-head with the much more sophisticated Apple Newton and ate its lunch, it's not the hardware that matters, but what you do with it.
I have a 3G mobile phone with a flat-rate all-I-can-eat data tariff, thanks to T-Mobile's web'n'walk package. All-you-can-eat data over 3G is the coming thing, probably with wifi hotspot access thrown in, as a standard cellphone contract option; I expect it's going to be nearly universal within a couple of years. Behind it, 4G is aiming for peak bandwidth of 100Mbps, within ten years. This is a really important point. The initial launch puffery aout the Foleo letting you sync with your mobile phone grossly understates the potential: what it's really about is that the Foleo lets you plug into Web 2.0 applications at near broadband speeds, and gives you the screen and keyboard to do useful things with them.
This is Palm's play for the corporate network. Docs to Go and Versamail aren't the real office apps intended for this platform; they're just the local offline editing tools for when you're not plugged in. If I'm right, expect to see Palm announce a service not unlike Apple's .Mac, only with added business services and more storage. Dot Mac is aimed at home users who want email, webspace, and easy synchronisation; I'd expect Palm to be preparing to deploy CRM applications, relational databases, and possibly office tools like Thinkfree Online. It's possible that they're going to try to negotiate uncapped access to this service via some of the bigger cellcos' business accounts. If they go this route, they're also likely to offer toolkits and SDKs to help corporate customers plug their business software straight into Palm's service and push it out to their employees' Foleos. A clear sign of this thinking would be the appearance of VNC, Citrix, or other thin client software on the platform.
The Foleo is light, simple, cheap to replace, and doesn't store any critical data if it's stolen, unlike an employee laptop. It lets a company keep critical data under lock and key, but makes accessing it relatively straightforward using existing Web 2.0 tech. If Palm manage to fill in the dotted line at the web services level, they can offer big clients something that PC laptops don't — simplicity and security, combined with lower cost.
It's not the only tech competing for this prize, of course. The hypervisor wars are under way, and everyone and their dog is talking about virtualization and downloading sandboxed operating system images to client computers. (As if this was something new; the IBM mainframe world has been doing it since the early 1970s). The VM scene is clearly workable (those mainframe guys weren't stupid), but it relies on having lots and lots of bandwidth, and powerful CPUs that support virtualization. The Foleo as web terminal strategy doesn't have any such requirements: all it needs is a gadget as powerful as a circa-1997 laptop (albeit prettier and cheaper), and some smarts on the server side ... and a 3G mobile phone in between.
Now: is this going to work? I'd have to say "maybe" if you held my feet to the fire — this isn't the first time this particular idea's been let out of the lab, and the precedents aren't promising. Sun tried to sell us on the idea of thin client computing back in the 1990s; Java is the big left-over legacy of that particular excursion. Earlier, diskless workstations were the wave of the future in 1992 — such a shame that hard disk drive prices crashed in 1994. What makes this time different is that it's a webby world out there, and we've got the wireless bandwidth to make using AJAX/Web 2.0 apps over the air feel no slower than wading through treacle wearing diving flippers.
I think the prospects for the Foleo (and Palm) depend on whether we really are in the middle of the 30-years-overdue shift to network mediated client-server applications that everyone's expecting. And the recent sighting of a 13 year old CEO suggests that if nothing else, the Web 2.0 bubble is at hand.
Meanwhile, I just hope someone ports OpenOffice to it. At the sort of price point it's heading for, it'd be a cracking writer's tool if it had an office suite a bit more feature-rich than Documents to Go. But of course, I'm not the target market ...