When Palm introduced its original "Pilot" personal digital assistant, a lot of people felt that the end of the notebook PC was near. Microsoft of course followed with a similar series of Windows Mobile products and Research in Motion's Blackberry has lightened the load for others who are using these devices to check email on the fly without having to open up a PC.
PDAs are fine so far as they go, but they are limited by their size. There's no practical way for them to have a full sized keyboard or screen.
Late last month at the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital Conference in Carlsbad, California Palm founder Jeff Hawkins announced a product to deal with this limitation. The Palm Foleo is a "mobile companion" to the Palm Treo handheld smartphone and eventually other smartphones to "help you do more on the go."
The device, which looks like a small laptop, has a 10-inch screen and a full QWERTY keyboard and weighs about 2.5 pounds. The device, which will sell for $499, is said to get five hours of battery life which is certainly more than most notebook PCs. In addition to communicating with the Treo, it also has WiFi to make a direct connection to the Internet in cafes or wherever you have access to a "hot spot."
Unlike Windows and Mac laptops, it turns on instantly. In fact there is no on or off switch Open it up and it's just on.
The Foleo's main feature is to sync with the email on your Treo. It connects to the Treo via Bluetooth and gives you access to the same mail as your Treo. In fact, if you delete a message from the Foleo it's automatically deleted from the Treo and vice versa.
The product, according to Hawkins, deals with the obvious limitations of PDAs. "There are times when you need a large screen and times when you need a large keyboard."
Hawkins believes that eventually people will carry all of their data in their pocket on a device like the Treo which, eventually will become "your primary PC." He said that the goal is not just to support Palm products but other smartphones as well.
In addition to e-mail, the Foleo also has a web browser to give you laptop-sized access to websites. Anyone who's ever tried to surf the web on a cell phone or a smartphone (with the possible exception of the soon-to-be-released Apple iPhone) knows how frustrating that small form factor can be.
While I applaud Palm's efforts to provide a decent human interface to pocket computing, I question whether this is really much of a breakthrough product. At 2.5 pounds, it's not that much lighter than many notebook PCs on the market and for most applications it's of little or no value unless it's synched with a Palm.
At $499, plus the cost of the Treo, the cost of is getting awfully close to that of a low-end laptop which has far more functionality. Still a case can be made for a device like this. You have to carry a phone and a lot of people now do chose to carry a smart phone so, for an additional $500 and 2.5 pounds of carrying weight, you have a decent screen and keyboard.
The market will decide whether this device takes off or, like so many other Internet appliances and ultra mobile devices, this will simply appeal to a small niche market.
There is another way to shed that laptop, assuming that you're have access to a PC when you arrive at your destination. MojoPac from RingCube Technologies (www.mojopac.com) allows you to turn an iPod, a portable external hard drive or even one of those "thumb drive" flash memory devices into a "virtual computer."
You'll still need a Windows PC at your destination but MojoPac lets you carry all your software and data with you and have access to your own "desktop" when you plug that external drive into a host PC. It works with Windows XP and, soon, Vista PCs.
You start by inserting the drive into your PC's USB port and downloading a 30 megabyte application from mojopac.com. You then install and run the Mojo application and your screen changes from your normal PC's display to what appears to be a brand new Windows PC with access to Internet Explorer and all the other applications that are bundled with Windows.
But that's it. The virtual MojoPac PC won't have any of your own applications until you install them on the external device just as if you were installing them on a new PC.
You must, of course, also copy any data files you need using either Windows Explorer or the file transfer software that comes with MojoPac.
Then, when you're on the road, all you need is access to someone's Windows PC (sorry, Mac users - Mac support is on the drawing board but not in the immediate plans). When you plug that drive into the host PC, you're automatically prompted to run MojoPac. As soon as you do, the host's desktop disappears to be replaced by your MojoPac Windows desktop with whatever applications you've installed on the drive.
If you want to switch back to your host PC's screen you can do so by clicking on the "switch to host" icon at the top of the screen.
I tested it using a 1-gigabyte thumb drive that I carry around on my key chain but it works with almost any external drive, including an iPod and many other digital music players that also function as external drives.
You could also use it with a portable external hard drive such as the Seagate USB 2.0 Portable External Hard Drive that stores anywhere from 40 to 160 GB on a device that measures only 1 by 3.7 by 0.5 inches.
I installed two applications on my thumb drive - Skype for making free phone calls and Adobe Audition, the audio recording software I use to file reports for CBS News radio. Having access to Audition on my keychain is a relief for me because there are times when I'm called upon to record radio pieces when I don't have access to my laptop.
MojoPac costs $49.99 but you can try it out free for 30 days.
A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid