The best idea Jeff Hawkins ever had

That's what the inventor of the Treo and Palm Pilot says about the Palm Foleo. He has a tough sell ahead.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
7 min read
CARLSBAD, Calif.--Although he knows not everyone will agree, Jeff Hawkins is convinced Palm's Foleo is the best idea he's ever had.

If it's true, that's really saying something, from the guy who came up with the original Palm Pilot and the Treo smart phone.

Shortly after introducing the Foleo at the D5 conference, Hawkins sat down with CNET News.com (as well as reporters from two Palm enthusiast sites, PalmInfoCenter and TreoCentral).

Q: Is this the "third baby" that you have talked about working on?
Hawkins: It is. I actually think it's going to be the biggest one of all. One of the things you try to do in product design is build what we call category-defining products. You build the first one and then it becomes iconic. That's really hard to do. We clearly did that with the Pilot, marginally less so with the Treo because there were other products, RIM and so on.

This is a whole new category. I think it's the best idea I've ever had. The further out you are, the more people have trouble understanding. It's hard to go back in time, but when we did the Pilot, there were a lot of people that thought that was a stupid idea. I mean a lot.

I'm very confident about (the Foleo). It's a challenging product to design. It's a great idea that's got a huge amount of legs to it. So this, I believe, will be the third one. At Palm, we had the Pilot--the PDA business--and we have the smart-phone business. (Foleo) is going to be the third one. Maybe there will be a fourth one someday, I don't know.

This is a mobile companion. It's for e-mail. That's what we're selling it as.

This is the third leg of the business. This is in its infancy. It's going to take a few years for the product to grow to anything of substantial size. But, you know, we didn't sell a lot of Pilots the first year. We didn't sell a lot of Treos the first year.

In a sense, mobile devices are all competing for space in the overnight bag that executives take with them. My guess is that something this large has to kick something out?
Not true. Let me give you an analogy to the Pilot. We created this organizer. That's what it was. Now, we didn't want to create organizers. We wanted to create handheld computers. We wanted to create personal computers, actually.

But to get a product accepted you have to find somebody who wants to buy it. Then you get it going. Once you get it going and you have a lot of people writing software for it, then it evolves into something else. We knew in the very beginning that it was supposed to be a little computer. But we didn't say what it was. We basically said it's an organizer and we'll find the people who want to buy an expensive organizer. And it was an expensive organizer. It was $300 or $369. Then it turned into something else.

So what is Foleo?
This is a mobile companion. It's for e-mail. That's what we're selling it as.

But what is it really?
Look, there's a lot of people that would love to have something like this as their main personal computer. There's no doubt about it

It's simple. It's small. It's fast. It's solid state. It's easy to use. Instant on and off. It's easy. I am always trying to create a better personal computer. You have to have a two-stage strategy to get to go where you want to go. You have to find that initial customer.

There is no initial customer for (ultramobile PCs). It's like a little broken PC. Who wants that? Very few people. And you are going to see that some people will like it, but not many. Just miniaturizing something isn't the right solution. The first time I learned this lesson was the IBM PC Jr. in 1985. IBM came out with this consumer version of the PC. It was a total flop. They just tried to make it smaller, make it cheaper. No one wanted it. Everyone wanted something better. It's not about just shrinking things and reducing things. You have to find somebody (for whom) this is a step up.

This (Foleo) is a step up for a person who loves this (Treo). That's how you sell your first 100,000 or 200,000 or 300,000 or whatever it is. Very quickly, and this is a key part of the strategy, is to get a lot of people writing software. We've started disclosing to developers. We are going to have about 10 or 12 people who have products when we ship. We are going to actively recruit developers. Over time, it is going to become more.

Did the Pilot ever become a full personal computer? No. Did it replace the PC? No, that was never the objective. But it became a lot more than an organizer. And the Foleo is going to be a lot more than an e-mail smart-phone companion.

In an interview earlier today, you said that the Foleo is going to help you rethink how you want to design smart phones. What do you mean?
We all struggle with this issue--you want to make this thing (the Treo) smaller. You want the screen to be bigger. You want the keyboard to be nonexistent, but you need to type. There's all these really difficult tradeoffs. Look at what Apple's doing. They decided to punt the keyboard. Steve Jobs thinks that's great. I don't know. We'll find out. We all struggle with the same problems.

I don't want to reveal too much. But I can now think through the problem differently. I can think through tradeoffs. Well, if I have something with a bigger screen and a keyboard--whether it looks like this (Foleo) or something else--where I can view and manipulate data, does it change how I design this guy (pointing to Treo)? Yes.

So, maybe a Treo without a keyboard?
That's an example. I'm not saying we are doing that. But it's much deeper than that and I don't want to say what those deeper things are. It's not just about e-mail. All you have to remember is you've got this thing in your pocket (smart phone) which has got a high-speed Internet connection and huge amounts of memory, just imagine huge, assume almost unlimited at some point in time. Now, what do I do with that data? I can assume this thing is relating to other objects in the world. I have to just leave you with that as a teaser. It frees up some of the constraints you're living with when you're trying to design one of these guys (Treo).

Did the Pilot ever become a full personal computer? No. Did it replace the PC? No, that was never the objective. But it became a lot more than an organizer. And the Foleo is going to be a lot more than an e-mail smart-phone companion.

This product seems to be the final shovel of dirt over the PDA's grave. Do you see any room left for innovation in smaller PDA devices?
I don't know. Do you think of the iPod as a PDA device? I think the things people traditionally did with a PDA are more and more being done with a smart phone. We're not investing in that area much. That's not a secret. And of course the business is declining. I don't think it's declining just because we're not investing in it. We're not out to kill the PDA business. It's a good business. We still sell millions of them. That line is in its later years. It's mature. It's declining. We are not actively looking for a really clever thing to do in that space. It's probably not going to come from us.

Even Apple--the iPod. Just a couple years ago Steve Jobs said "I am never going to build a phone. I am never going to build a phone. The last thing I am ever going to do is build a product where the carriers tell me what to do." He had to go in that direction too. We had to go build the phone.

This (the Foleo), in some ways, is a lot more like the PDA business in the sense that when we did the Pilot, we designed whatever product we wanted to design. We distributed anywhere we wanted to distribute it. We priced it the way we wanted to price it and we branded it the way we wanted to brand it. When we did the Treos, that's not true any more. We have constraints on every single one of those items. It's hard. The carriers dictate things so much. The great thing about this product (is that) it's like we're back completely in control again. We have complete control of the operating system. We have complete control over the software suite. I love that. I've been wanting to get back completely in control again.

So why Linux? Are you hoping to tap into the Linux developer community?
If Palm had a different course of development over the years, if we had owned Palm OS the whole time end to end, the OS would have been a lot further along. We would have fully supported it and put it on, probably on top of Linux. However, that wasn't the case.

So we said, look, Linux is fine. There are a lot of Linux developers out there. There is a lot of Linux code that is out there. People love it. I think there is a huge number of pent-up, frustrated Linux programmers. They are tired of writing server code. They have all been looking for something that was more consumer-friendly. Putting Linux on a Dell PC doesn't really cut it. It's not what they are looking for.

It allowed us to do everything we wanted to do. I wouldn't have put Windows Mobile or something on this. Because I wouldn't have been able to build the product I wanted. I couldn't have made the instant on. I couldn't have done all the things we did with it.