In search of the smartphone laptop

Palm tried it with Foleo and failed; will Apple do better?

In the past two years, mobile phone and laptop companies have unveiled breathtaking innovations -- from 24-hour battery laptops to dual-screen laptops to "augmented reality" mobile phone applications.

Despite these advancements, the industry has failed to solve the oldest and most central problem of mobility: How to add a larger keyboard and screen to a tiny mobile phone while on the go.

A new IBM survey of 600 desktop PC users in the US, China and the UK says most users would be willing to replace their PCs with smart phones for using the Internet. Some 71 percent of respondents said they plan to increase their use of social networking, instant messaging and reading the news on mobile devices.

The study found that a large screen and large keyboard - mutually exclusive features on a handset - are among the most desirable features for mobile Internet access.

IBM advises in its report that "device makers need to think about how to integrate technologies such as nano projectors and projected virtual keyboards." But this advice probably reflects the direction of IBM's own research rather than actual demand on the part of users. I believe users want real big screens and real big keyboards, not projected or virtual ones.

Palm inventor Jeff Hawkins tried to solve this problem last year by proposing the Palm Foleo, a Linux-based mini-laptop that would have connected to the Internet via a Bluetooth-connected Palm smart phone. And what did he get for his trouble? Scorn and ridicule.

The Foleo had its own processor and memory, as well as generic office applications, browser software and e-mail application. It was an "instant-on" device usable seconds after being switched on.

The Foleo was roundly criticized for being too expensive (US$499) and too inflexibly dependent on the use of a Palm phone while at the same time unable to actually run Palm applications.

Palm retreated in shame, burying the project while at the same time promising to resurrect it someday. We'll see.

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