A few weeks ago, Palm, Inc. unveiled the Foleo, the first product in its new "Mobile Companion" category.
This won’t be a handheld, smartphone, or laptop. As its name suggests, it will be a special-purpose device intended to act in conjunction with a smartphone and not replacing it, letting people view the Web and their email on a larger screen and enter text with a full-size keyboard
Even though Palm doesn’t want to admit it, it’s not the first company to develop something like this. The first one I can think of that that attracted worldwide attention was the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, which was recently followed up by the N800.
Whether you call the device a Mobile Companion or an Internet Tablet, this is a class of devices that I believe has a great deal of potential.
Special-Purpose vs. Multi-Purpose
The Foleo and Nokia N800 are special-purpose devices, as they have a strong focus on accessing the Web and email. People who are accustomed to multi-purpose devices tend to despise these, because they can’t understand why someone would buy a device with less functionality.
But that doesn’t mean that there is no market for special-purpose devices. The iPod is essentially a single-purpose device, and we all know how well it sells.
So why is the iPod successful, when there are competing devices that offer more features for less money? In order for a single-purpose device to sell well, it has to offer at least one feature that is significantly better than the multi-purpose devices it’s competing with. Sometimes this is price, but a much, much better option is ease of use.
If you can convince someone that your product is significantly easier to use than its competition then you have a good chance of making them into a customer, even if competing devices do more.
I know this seems counter-intuitive to some, but these are people who have been using multi-purpose devices for a decade or more, and so are intimately familiar with their quirks. Others are people who have an IT department to handle the nitty-gritty details of keeping up their computer. Neither group sees how intimidating having to use a multi-purpose device can be.
It Should Just Work
Those who think that the Palm Foleo and similar devices are going to fail are fond of pointing out that that there’s no market for this type of device, as most laptops are sold to business executives who don’t care about the price of their device. They just want it to do everything they could possibly ever need.
But these people aren’t considering why the average joe doesn’t have a laptop. It isn’t because they don’t want one. It’s because these devices too complicated to own. I’m not talking here about how easy it is to tap on an icon and have your email application open. That’s not even scratching the surface.
Here’s just some of the complications that intimidate most people from getting a laptop: setting email accounts up, setting up wireless networking accounts, installing operating system patches, protecting against viruses, fixing unexplainable system errors, reinstalling the operating system when something goes terribly wrong.
Business executives, the primary users of laptops toady, don’t have to care about any of this. Whenever they have a problem, they hand their computer to someone in IT, and when it comes back it has been fixed. Most people can’t do this, so they don’t buy a laptop. They’re too worried that some small system problem will turn their expensive computer into a paperweight.
If Nokia, Intel, Palm, or some other company can create a laptop replacement that does the tasks most people need, and doesn’t require all the maintenance a traditional laptop or tablet PC does, then they’ll have a winner.
Fulfilling the Promise
I hope it’s clear at this point why I think there is a market for a Mobile Companion. But that doesn’t mean that I think everything designed to fit into this category will be a success.
Any given device must really, truly meet the needs of its potential audience for a device significantly easier to own than a regular laptop. If it doesn’t, then its developer is just wasting its time, and ours