In the hardware world, the first-mover strategy only works if you get it right.
For example, let's consider Palm's Foleo. Introduced last May at the D: All Thing Digital conference, the Foleo was supposed to be a $499 lightweight "mobile companion" with a full-size keyboard. Sure, it looked like a 10-inch laptop, but it was woefully underpowered, and it was designed to only work with Palm's Treo smartphones at first: modifications would have to have been made to support other phones.
Faced with mounting criticism, Palm made the correct decision in September to postpone the Foleo project and focus on more pressing priorities. But late last year, something interesting began to happen. After watching the early interest in a different design, Asus' Eee PC, the PC industry began taking another look at the idea of low-cost lightweight laptops that couldn't handle Crysis but could get you up and running on the Internet.
My colleague Erica Ogg, a smart and thoughtful person despite her baffling support for the Los Angeles Dodgers, thinks that Palm and Hawkins deserve more credit for coming up with this concept. Earlier today, she wrote, "but the Eee wasn't the first to employ the broader concept of a mobile Web device that looked like a notebook PC, but was meant to function more as a secondary device. That was the idea brought to us by Palm founder Jeff Hawkins with the Foleo."
I'm not sure I could disagree more. Just for a moment, I'll leave aside the fact that Asus announced the Eee PC just days after Hawkins introduced his "best idea ever," meaning company executives probably didn't throw together a blueprint for the Eee PC on the plane ride back from Carlsbad, Calif., to Taiwan.
This idea has been around for ages. Gateway had one. Toshiba had one. Sony had one. The problem with all of those designs was that they were too expensive, too underpowered, too clunky, or all three. Most were released well before wireless networking became ubiquitious, as well.
These days, with the price of processing power and storage at an all-time low, it stands to reason that people would be interested in compelling devices that won't replace your main home or work PC, but provide a decent experience running today's software.
Unfortunately, that does not in any way describe the Foleo.
Palm designed the Foleo as basically one thing: an adjunct to Treo smartphone owners who wanted a larger keyboard and screen for working through a day's e-mail. It featured a processor designed for 2004-era PDAs, and it was unclear whether it could play video. It came with just 256MBs of storage, nearly four times less capacity than a $49 iPod Shuffle. Toshiba's Libretto 20, a subnotebook introduced 12 years earlier in 1995, used a 270MB hard drive.
Chances are, the Foleo wasn't even as powerful as the smartphones it was designed to work alongside. The only thing it brought to the table that you can't find on an iPhone was a keyboard and a display. And the iPhone is cheaper, with a more powerful processor and boatloads more storage, and it can play movies, television shows, and music with ease.
Now consider the Eee PC (for the record, an even dumber name than the Foleo). It uses a 900MHz processor made by Intel; no powerhouse for sure, but at least it was designed to run PC applications. The base model comes with 2GB of flash memory for storage, and models with 8GB are available.
You're not going to edit home videos on this thing, but you can surf the Web, read and write documents, install third-party software written for Linux clients, and play songs and movies. And priced at $299 to $499, it's also cheaper than the Foleo.
Yes, the Foleo was also a small Linux-based notebook for around $500. That doesn't mean Palm and Hawkins deserve credit for correctly predicting the need for smaller notebook-style computers, because that's not what they designed. The only similarity between the Foleo and the Eee PC is a price tag, the Linux operating system, and a hinge.
Regular readers of this blog might be surprised at the following sentence, but it's true. The person who really deserves credit for the recent miniboom in small low-cost Linux laptops might just be Nick Negroponte.
I've had my disagreements with the One Laptop Per Child project and its methods, but those do not extend to the XO laptop itself. It's been a long and winding road, but Negroponte first outlined his idea for a low-cost open-source laptop in January 2005 at the World Economic Forum in Davos (click for PDF).
In the months and years that followed, Intel and AMD each scurried to come up with their own proposal for a portable low-cost Linux-based system. The two chipmakers have scored more points slagging each other's ideas than they have in the marketplace, but their efforts working on these types of projects spurred other PC companies to get involved.
And the XO laptop has actually received some interest from regular folks in developed countries intrigued by the interface and design of the laptop. The XO is likewise not a very powerful system, but at least it can do more than read e-mail and browse the Web.
Let's give Palm and Jeff Hawkins credit for a lot of things--perhaps most importantly, the notion of truly mobile computing itself. But if the race to develop The Next Mobile Computer really centers around the Eee PC and its offspring, it won't be because of the Foleo.