Palm Foleo: A Failed Mobile Device

by Jakob Nielsen on May 31, 2007

Summary: There is room in the market for a device in-between laptops and cellphones. But Palm Foleo isn't it. It's too close to a laptop.

Palm has introduced a so-called "mobile companion" that can be used to work with data instead of your mobile phone. It uses the phone or WiFi for connectivity instead of having its own.

There is room in the market for a device in-between laptops and cellphones. But Palm Foleo isn't it. It's too close to a laptop.

Photo of the Palm Foleo next to a Palm Treo smartphone

The Palm Foleo mobile companion with a Treo smartphone (photo from Palm's website).

It makes sense to have an information appliance with a bigger screen, bigger keyboard, and better input device instead of trying to cram email, Web, and interactive info access onto a phone. With a companion appliance for data services, mobile phones can go back to being tiny and shiny instead of clunky bricks. Of course, this would do away with Palm's own Treo phones.

Another aspect of the website's photo that doesn't work is showing a big mobile companion next to a big phone featuring a second keyboard. For mobile, you want to cut how much you're schlepping around, so you don't want the same feature twice.

The product website is miserable and doesn't provide any concrete info. Luckily the New York Times wrote about the Foleo (paid access) and gave us some facts:

  • weight: 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg)
  • thickness: 1 inch (2.4 cm)
  • size: 11x6 inches (28x15 cm) - estimated from photo

Much too big and fat for a mobile device. At that size, you might as well buy a small laptop, which would run all the software you are already used to. For example Sony's Vaio TZ90 is 10% lighter and thinner than the Foleo.

A mobile information appliance should be thinner than 1 cm (0.4 in), weigh less than 1 pound (.45 kg), and be about 6x4 inches (15x10 cm) big. Something with these specs makes sense because it would fit the ecological niche between the laptop and the phone.

Palm seems ashamed of its own specs since they are nowhere to be found on the product pages.

This is a blatant violation of all guidelines for e-commerce. I can't believe even the worst designer would suggest making a site where you can't find out how big the product is (especially for a mobile device). It must be a deliberate decision to hide the facts.

Update Sept. 2007: Palm Cancels Foleo Project

On September 4, 2007, Palm's CEO, Ed Colligan, wrote: "I have decided to cancel the Foleo mobile companion product [...] Our own evaluation and early market feedback were telling us that we still have a number of improvements to make Foleo a world-class product, and we can not afford to make those improvements."

Only 3 months and 5 days after I condemned the product. Palm could have saved about $10M if it had listened to usability from the start.

Let's hope that they will indeed invest the saved resources in making a more suitable mobile product. As I did say, there's plenty of potential.

An aside: the headline for Palm's announcement violates all the rules for writing for the Web ("A Message to Palm Customers, Partners and Developers" — hard to imagine anything less specific, less SEO-friendly, and less scannable). Palm also needs some usability people on its Web team!

Update 2010: Tablets Can Work

The iPad (and other modern tablets) proved that I was right in 2007, when I said "There is room in the market for a device in-between laptops and cellphones." (Sadly, the iPad launch apps had poor usability,  but later tablets have been better.)

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