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Foleo

Yesterday’s launch of the Palm Foleo probably did not yield the expected huzzahs and praise that normally heralds a product launch from one of Silicon Valley’s product design luminaries, especially one by Mr. Jeff Hawkins. Palm chose to use Mossberg‘s All Things Digital conference in San Diego as a springboard for its media assault, but what should have been a watershed product launch was rapidly overshadowed by a brief chat between two billionaires. The criticism of the Foleo since the buzz started yesterday … and has been nearly uniform in slamming the device.

In fact, the jeers from the peanut gallery are rising to a deafening roar. Carlo Longino @ TechDirt thinks that Palm is done like dinner with this abortion of a product. Even (the fake) Steve Jobs thinks it blows. Much more damaging, though, the mainstream tech press (whatever that is) is joining the chorus: PCmag questions who will buy the thing, InformationWeek calls it a yawn. Matt Hamblen questions whether they did their research. This is actually one of the worst product launches from a large company that I’ve seen in quite a while.

What’s wrong with Palm is difficult to pinpoint. I doubt that, if you did your standard market research, you’d be able to plumb much support for a product like this. However, that’s also true of the original Palm Pilot, which launched on the heels of the death of Apple’s Newton in 1996. And let’s not forget that the Treo practically catalyzed the SmartPhone market all on its own. With these two incredible successes, Jeff Hawkins hasn’t exactly been given the opportunity to learn from his mistakes in being ahead of the curve.

But this time he might. The product smacks of founder-itis. This is an affliction common to mature tech companies and/or startups created by rich tech executives, where the brains behind past successes begin to tinker and approach new design problems, rather than ask questions about what it is that people want. In other words, did Jeff Hawkins run amok and create a big white elephant, simply to amuse himself? Did he sell dazzled co-workers on his vision that the Foleo is the “next big thing”? It’s apparent that they believe it is, given that resources have clearly been diverted from such projects as putting linux on the treo and revving the Treo’s design, which is getting pretty long-in-the-tooth.

The reality is that a company like Palm can only really effectively market one, maybe two, product lines at a time. If there’s a market for the Foleo, the product would be better served by financing, developing, and marketing this proclaimed “mobile companion” externally from Palm, just like the Treo. The Folio’s audience is probably going to turn out to be a LOT different from the Treo’s (one potential market is folks who want email and web on a cheap easy-to-put-away computing device — like seniors) and probably a lot less sexy.

Besides, the Treo (despite the fact that it’s a great product) has yet to really hit it’s stride. This is hard to remember when you visit Silicon Valley, where the Treo is practically ubiquitous. But find someone using a Treo in Europe or Asia (or on the Eastern Seaboard) and you’re just as likely to get struck by lightning.

Either way, the launch of the Foleo (careful to spell it correctly) is not the watershed event that was the Pilot or the Treo… so maybe Hawkins will finally have a mistake from which to learn.

-Ian.

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