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by Peter Griffin | from the Herald on Sunday

Remember the little gadget that seemingly started the whole mobile computing craze, the Palm Pilot?

It came out in 1996, had a grayscale screen, a measly 128KB of memory and no wireless connections.

But it had Graffiti – a clever handwriting recognition system that was very easy to use. It meant you could use the Palm Pilot’s pen to scribble notes into the device – no need for a keyboard.

I got my first Palm Pilot, the Vx, in 2000, and with the collapsible keyboard I bought with it, I was able to tap out stories and emails wherever I was, sending them over the mobile network via a cable linked to my Nokia mobile. By this stage, Palm had sold truckloads of its little Pilots.

But then Palm started to lose the plot. There were organisational changes; its founders became frustrated with new owner 3Com and went off to start the rival Handspring. They returned, but Palm got left behind with the rise of Windows-based mobile PDAs (personal digital assistants) such as the Compaq iPaq.

ch combined the PDA and the phone, and that has been the dominant model ever since. The PDA is in decline, while Research In Motion’s Blackberry, the Nokia Communicator, Sony Ericsson’s P900 and Palm’s own Treo have been the devices of choice for busy, email-obsessed executives.

Which makes the arrival of Palm’s latest gadget, the Foleo, very surprising indeed. It is basically a stripped-down computer – it has no hard drive, just 128MB of read-only memory and 256MB for storing data. It’s based on the Linux operating system, uses the Opera web browser, weighs 1.1kg and provides up to five hours battery life. It’s designed to be instantly turned on – no booting up, as you’d expect with Microsoft Windows.

In effect, it’s an under-powered, if lightweight, laptop. The peculiar thing is that it has been designed to be used in tandem with a smartphone. Bluetooth wireless networking links the Foleo to a Treo or a Blackberry and syncs all programs, updating them on the smartphone as you type on the Foleo.

The only advantages seem to be the full-sized keyboard and a decent screen – you still have to carry a smartphone.

Coming from Jeff Hawkins, who kicked off the revolution when he invented the Palm Pilot, is the Foleo another stroke of genius? The industry doesn’t seem to think so.

“We believe the Foleo offers too little functionality to justify the burden of carrying around another device,” analyst group Gartner concluded.

In fact, most people seem to be scratching their heads over the Foleo, which seems to go against the trends – multi-function smartphones and ever-smaller laptops.

Numerous technology companies have focused on building scale-down laptops that run on Windows and offer all the functions of a regular laptop in a smaller format, with less memory and hard drive resources. Hawkins thinks that approach is failing.

“There is no initial customer for ultra-mobile PCs. It’s like a little broken PC. Who wants that? Very few people. Just miniaturising something isn’t the right solution,” he told tech website CNet.com.

Technology observers are always intrigued when someone goes against the flow, because that someone may be the next Steve Jobs, who in the 1980s pushed on with his Apple Macintosh despite crushing competition from the Windows-based personal computer. But Hawkins may have miscalculated this time. After all, debuting in the US at US$499 ($660) – with a current US$100 ($130) cash rebate – the Foleo isn’t that cheap, and it doesn’t replace your primary computer, anyway. I think Hawkins had the right idea with Palm’s foldable keyboard all those years ago – a highly functional smartphone with a decent screen and an expandable keyboard for those who need to type up lengthy documents.

But Palm believes the Foleo will form the third pillar of its business – the Treo Smartphone and its sagging PDA business being the other two. How successful the likes of Sony and Samsung will be with their ultra-mobile computers will determine whether the Foleo turns out to be Palm’s crowning glory or its biggest folly.