Last year, Palm quietly announced the Foleo, a new device that resembled a small laptop, but promised us the ease-of-use and instant-on capabilities of a PDA. The device made quite a "splash" at the time, but sadly it was not the good kind. I was more like the type of splash you get when you drop a microwave into a lake. Amidst mixed reviews and lackluster public response, Palm cancelled the Foleo just a few short weeks before it was to hit the shelves.
To many, the Foleo was just another failed product, one of many castaways that line the road to technological progress. To us, however, it represents something more, a product to came close to fulfilling a true need. Modern PCs are needlessly frustrating, expensive and time consuming to maintain and use. The Foleo promised something new; a truly simple and elegant computing device that showed much promise but ultimately missed the bullseye.
WHAT THE FOLEO DID RIGHT
From the start, the Foleo was designed to run like a PDA. It turned on and off instantly. Unlike PCs, you didn't have to drain your battery to get "instant on," as there were no separate "standby" and "hibernate" modes. The Foleo turned on an off instantly every time, and used almost no power when it was off.
Applications were also designed to be easy to use. Each app ran taking up the whole screen, and you could quickly flip through applications with a popup apps menu. You never had to manually save data or quit an application, but simply launched another app when you wanted to do something else; again, just like a PDA. This instant gratification made the Foleo a pleasure to use and an excellent fit to today's mobile lifestyle.
WHAT THE FOLEO DID WRONG
From the beginning, we thought it odd that the Foleo did not run PalmOS apps, since the hardware (we were told) was very similar to a Palm TX. If that were supported, the Foleo would have debuted with a large base of software, most of which need only be tweaked to best take advantage of the new screen size. Additionally, the Foleo might then have been viewed more as a "supercharged giant PDA" rather than as a "underpowered tiny laptop", an inevitable comparison that Palm tried but was unable to avoid.
As it was, the Foleo was limited to a few apps that were specifically written for it, leaving many to ask "what can it do?" Furthermore, the Foleo only synchronized email, leaving no easy way to move data on and off the device.
While Palm tried to recruit third party developers to address the first problem, it was hard to get software support for a device with no installed units. Consequently, had it shipped, the Foleo would have sported only a handful of applications, a fatal flaw for a device that carried a hefty $500 price tag.
THE IDEAL COMPUTING DEVICE
Still, while the Foleo is history, we hope to see another Foleo-type device someday. With this possibility in mind, we'd like to present our wishlist for our own ideal simplified computing device; one that would be easy to use, cheap to maintain, and simple to backup.
1) Run like a PDA
Like the Foleo, our ideal computing device should operate like a PDA, with instant on and off and automatic file saving. Applications should switch instantly, and--except for special "desk accessories"--occupy the full screen.
2) Run existing software
This new device must be able to run applications from an established operating system, such as PalmOS or Windows Mobile. If the apps are run under some sort of emulation, the emulation must be seamless to both the end user and developer, thus providing both an extended software market for existing software companies and a base of installed software for the end user.
3) Operating system in ROM
You should NEVER have to reinstall the OS to fix a problem. It is absolutely absurd that this is a common procedure on desktop PCs.
Instead, the OS should be stored on a write-protected drive or internal card that would be write-enabled (with a manual override switch) only when the OS or hardware was updated. This would make the OS itself immune to viruses or corruption and largely maintenance free.
Whenever applications needed cache space or other temporary storage, they would use a dedicated storage volume that could simply be ERASED (via boot menu) if it somehow got corrupted.
4) Store user data on a removable card
All of a user's documents, files, multimedia, and settings should be stored in an organized way on separate, removable (and optionally encrypted) flash cards. This way, when a user needed to backup their data, they could simply make a copy of their data card(s). Thus, they would never be left with the dilemma of not knowing how to get their data "out of" the device.
5) Make applications simple to install
Applications should never need a complex installation process. Instead, they should copy files to a single folder on the user data card(s), or run directly from its own card like a console game cartridge. They should never be allowed to install files all over the device, but must keep all their settings and startup information inside their own private data folder, where the OS will look for them (if necessary) upon startup. In this way, an errant application would be unable to corrupt the data of other applications or the operating system itself.
6) Support portable data and applications
This hypothetical device would ideally be available in many different form factors, speeds, and capabilities, from phones, to PDAs, to laptops, to full desktop models. With all these options, the user should be able to take their data cards with them and insert them into another device, thus giving them full and instant access to all their data, multimedia and applications wherever they go. For added compatibility, a software emulator could even allow the apps and data to run seamlessly on existing PCs and laptops.
Our ideal device could revolutionize how people use computers. By simply moving all of user's data into separate cards they can easily remove, transport, and backup, it allows the computing devices themselves to be more simple, reliable and interchangeable. Specialized backup programs would be unnecessary, as would most synchonization programs and virus scanners. In a way, it would use modern technology to bring back some of the simplicity we all enjoyed back when software ran off of floppy disks.
This theoretical device is not just a technological pipe dream. It could easily be done today with PDA hardware and code from the PalmOS Simulator. With a little software restructuring, it could even run on the Foleo hardware that Palm already designed. We have no idea what Palm has in mind for the future, of course, but we hope we'll see this "Future Foleo" sometime soon, from somebody if not Palm.