Palm Foleo Does More by Doing Less

My first thought when I read Palm‘s press release today about its new Foleo Mobile Companion was: Damn, for less than what I’ve spent in the past year to keep my five year-old iBook running, I could have had a Foleo. My regret isn’t because the Foleo does more. On the contrary. It’s because it does less.

Like V-8, Foleo delivers your daily requirements — email, Web browsing, contacts, and document editing — on a 2.5 pound device (half the heft of the previously-noted iBook) with a full keyboard and a 10 inch screen (about the same as the iBook’s usable real estate).

Also like V-8, you get all of it in a much smaller, more palatable package. Not to mention cheaper. The Foleo’s initial price is $500, after a $100 rebate. Less than an Apple iPhone.

You could call Foleo a “subnotebook,” but Palm, wisely, isn’t doing that. (Consider what Wikipedia says about the category: “Subnotebooks are a niche IT product and rarely sell in large numbers.”) Instead, positioning Foleo as a mobile phone “companion” plants the device right dead center of the mainstream.

Today’s smartphone is the mobile computer that Palm envisioned when the company was founded 15 years ago. Right now smartphones can do everything my antique iBook can, and then some. And smartphones are way cheaper than computers, especially very lightweight computers.

“The smartphone will be the center of most people’s computing experience,” said Palm Founder Jeff Hawkins in a webcast today.

But while we want the phone to be smaller, there are some times when you need a keyboard and full-size display, as anyone who uses a phone for email can attest. Instead of replacing the phone, Foleo uses the phone as its mobile connection.

“Today there are 24 million people getting email on smartphones,” Hawkins said. “We first created the Foleo for them.”

In keeping with that mandate, Foleo does things in a simple and basic way. Basic applications are built-in. The Foleo syncs up automatically with the phone using Bluetooth. And everything works instantly, like picking up the phone. There are only two “states” — on and off.

The design is clean — no latches or lights. It’s small enough to be comfortably usable in a bus or on a plane. The top is rippled so it’s easy to grab with one hand. The keyboard is standard and the screen goes right to the edge. And Foleo has a true five-hour battery life that follows the cell phone model: charge it all night and use it all day. “When you’re in the airport you no longer have to sit on the floor,” is how Hawkins put it.

Foleo also has built-in WiFi, a USB port, video-out port, headphone jack, and slots for SD and compact flash cards for memory expansion. The device runs a Linux-based operating system, shielded from users with a GUI and the Opera Web browser, as well as a PDF viewer and editors for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Applications can be run stand-alone as well as synched with the phone.

There are no menu bars; instead Foleo has one-button access to basic applications. There’s an “apps” button for other applications, which presumably will be delivered from a menu. There’s no save, close, sleep, launch, shut down or resume modes — and no delays waiting for these operations. When you turn it off everything just stays the way it was when you left it.

When you want to read your email, you press the email button and the Foleo automatically connects to your email server via the phone. Your email appears on the screen instantly. Likewise Web browsing. Setting up the connection with your phone is a point-and-click operation.

Palm has opened up the architecture and is actively recruiting developers to build applications for the Foleo. The company expects to announce other productivity applications soon, for both stand-alone and synched modes. The device can’t handle video yet, but Palm plans to add that so we can watch those YouTube videos.

You do, of course, need a mobile phone and a data plan to use Foleo in synched mode. Initially, the device will work with Palm Treo phones running Palm OS or Windows Mobile and the company says that Foleo should work with any Windows Mobile phone with “little or no modification.” Palm plans to support RIM and Symbian devices as well as Apple iPhone, if Apple opens its device. “Our intention is to work with every smartphone,” said Hawkins.

So what’s not to like? Only one thing: Foleo won’t be available until sometime this summer. So I guess I’m going to put a few more miles on the iBook.

If you can’t wait to get a Foleo, sign up here to be notified when it hits the shelves.