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A Conversation with Jeff Hawkins

Thu May 31, 2007 - 10:27 AM EDT - By Dieter Bohn

More of the conversation

More Foleo Freedoms

The subject turned to whether or not the standalone PDA was well and truly dead. PalmInfocenter's Ryan Kairer asked if the Foleo was the final nail in the coffin. Hawkins shrugged. He admitted that the PDA business was declining, it was mature. He said it was no secret that Palm isn't devoting a lot of resources to that business, but that they're still relatively happy with it, they don't really feel any need to kill it.

Interestingly, though, Hawkins returned to the theme of how the Foleo's development mirrored that of the Pilot. More specifically, Hawkins talked about how refreshing it is for Palm to have total control of a product end-to-end. With the Foleo, there are no carrier restraints, no carrier approvals, demands, delays, etc. That's what allowed Palm to announce when they felt like it, to set the price point wherever they wanted, to market however they liked, etc. With the Foleo, "Nobody tells us what to do."

Another surprising freedom with the Foleo is that it's actually much simpler internally than the Treo. Palm just re-purposed a bunch of Treo-type battery cells for the battery. The main board itself is just a small, single piece. Unlike the Treo - which requires considerations of multiple boards, radios, and carrier demands - with the Foleo Palm has been able to just decide on what they wanted to make and then make it.

"I love the form factor. I have no desire to change it." Whereas many of us have been underwhelmed by the small, laptop-like form factor of the Foleo, Hawkins thinks it's spot-on. "It was never meant to be a laptop replacement."

I asked why the device is designed to be used exclusively with a smartphone, or nearly so. Why no server-side software, no PC client for it to sync with? Hawkins talked about how the PC-side is where 90% of tech support hassles and headaches seem to occur for Palm. He's not interested in syncing with the PC, it never entered into his mind that this should be plugged into a PC. While Hawkins was discussing why he didn't think PC sync was important for the Foleo (one reason - no need for execs to even tell their IT department they're using one), I kept thinking to myself "He doesn't want to sync with the PC. He wants to eliminate it."

Here's another story for the Hawkins mythology. We've all heard about the "wood block" Hawkins used when he designed the original Pilot; carrying it around and 'using' it to get a feel for how a digital organizer should be. There was a very similar story for the Foleo. Five years ago (!), Hawkins and Peter Skillman got together and grabbed a PC keyboard and set it on top of a photocopier. The took that piece of paper, cut it down to the size they wanted, and then taped it to a piece of foam board, then using some tape to make a hinge to attach the 'screen.'

Random Bits

Hawkins did let a few 'off-message' pieces of information slip during the conversation. The Foleo does seem like it would make a good video device, but right now the processor is just underpowered. The screen on the Foleo is 1024x600 - it's a widescreen that actually identical to the 10.2 inch screen found on many portable DVD players. "Maybe we'll get to movies next time." For now, the focus is laser-tight on getting the core functions of the Foleo just right - email, browsing, handling attachments in Office.

We all want to know if the operating system on the Foleo is the same as what we'll be seeing on future Treos. Of course, Hawkins can't answer that, but signs are definitely pointing to 'yes.' When I asked what they're calling the OS on the Foleo, Hawkins wasn't sure. It wasn't really an issue for him, which I'm taking to mean Palm hasn't considered too deeply the OS differences between the Foleo and Treos in development - because they likely don't have to much.

So why Linux? "Linux has a lot of great things going for it." Hawkins went into the complex history of the PalmOS. If they'd had total control of it the entire time, Hawkins said, sure, it might have been in a place where they could have used it for the Foleo. But they didn't. As far as running it on something else, "We couldn't have done what we wanted with Windows Mobile. The instant on, the instant app switching. The interface." Linux was easy to develop for, easy for Palm to customize to fit their ideal vision for the Foleo.

As far as apps go, Hawkins also said that he thinks that there are plenty of developers who will be very interested in the Foleo. "There's a lot of pent-up demand among Linux developers for a device like this, for a consumer device like this." In fact, Hawkins let slip that he thinks there are "10 or 12" 3rd party applications from developers they're working with that may be ready at launch.

Final bits: The best idea of a launch window we're going to get is still "this summer." And the development SDK is still set to be released at the same time as the Foleo itself. The price, which seems very high to me, "isn't that expensive" in the context of the high-powered execs that Hawkins is targeting here. Alrighty then.

Next Page: Conclusion, and Dieter's Thoughts >>

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