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The "3rd Category" Device is Coming. What Will it Be?

Tue May 29, 2007 - 9:21 AM EDT - By Dieter Bohn, Mike Overbo


Update: No Foolin: it's really happening tomorrow. Palm's press release confirms it. Additionally, Palm is going to be providing a webcast of the event at 11:30 PST. TreoCentral's Dieter Bohn (aka, me) is en route to the event now - plan on full coverage at TreoCentral tomorrow. Thanks to newtonjack for the tip.

For just over 5 years now, the Treo has been the best smartphone on the market - in both its PalmOS and Windows Mobile incarnations. Despite this, many in the Palm and Treo community, as well as analysts outside it, have lately become concerned about Palm's future. Amid buyout rumors, complaints about a relative lack of innovation, and an OS-strategy that (to put it very kindly) has been muddled, there's been a growing feeling of discontent among those who love Treos.

Let us put this vague feeling of discontent into words and ask straight out: "What on earth has Palm been doing with their engineers, their innovators, the geniuses who brought us the Palm Pilot and the Treo? Surely they've been working on something beyond merely yanking the antenna off the 700p."

Jeff Hawkins has promised to give us an answer and it's coming tomorrow (TreoCentral will be on the scene to provide updates as soon as they're available). What's coming? A "3rd type" of device. What's been remarkable - unprecedented, in fact - is that hard details about this device are nowhere to be seen, either as leaked specs, spy shots, FCC approvals, nothing. Nobody even is really sure what this "3rd category" of devices even is.

We won't have long to wait before we know for sure, but while we wait it's fun to speculate. Read on as TreoCentral summarizes what we know, what we believe, and a little speculation after that.

What we know

What do we know? As we said above, precious little. What we do have are a few clues and quotes, however. Let's summarize them quickly:

  1. Palm has been working on this 3rd category of device since before September of 2005:
    Hawkins could not leave without a tease, and so he explained how the the original Palm and the Treo were revolutionary devices, and how everything else released by Palm were sustaining devices. Now, he claims that Palm is working on a 3rd revolutionary device that will keep the company going over the next half decade.
  2. Details have not been leaked.
  3. It's neither a smartphone or a PDA, but something else:
    There is a third business that I've been working on but I'm not going to tell you what it is. It's in mobile computing. It's something different and it's in its early stage. We have three businesses at PalmOne. One you don't even know about, which is just a child. Another is the teenager and the other one is the mature 45-year-old.
  4. We have the oft-quoted bit from Jeff Hawkins:
    I'll give you a couple clues. I always think of mobile computing as personal computing. This long-term vision has led us through everything - first the organizers and now through the smart phone space. It's like everything a personal computer is. Continue down that path. What are the implications of a world where everyone has a super high-speed Internet connection in their pocket and many gigabytes of storage, super-fast processors, audio, visual and multimedia? What are the consequences of that? How will that change computing when you have all that stuff available to you all the time? I try to think into the future. That's how we come up with new products. So I'm not going to tell you what it is, but it's following the consequences of mobile computing.
  5. Palm has been working on an entirely new version of their OS, based on Linux.
  6. Palm registered the "Foleo" trademark in January, 2005 (more on this on the next page)

That's precious little to go on, but we can work with it. Let's add a few more clues to the pile before we move on.

What we believe

  1. It will be data-centric, though not necessarily voice-centric. It's not a smartphone, but that doesn't necessarily mean it can't make calls.
  2. We strongly suspect this will be the first device to feature the new, Linux-powered PalmOS.
  3. We suspect (hope) the device will be available by the end of the year, as CEO Ed Colligan has stated that Palm would release Linux-based products within that time frame.
  4. It will use Opera's browser for standard web browsing, but more importantly it will access the data found on the web in other ways. Palm execs have often said that the browser is sometimes an inefficient way to get at information online. The need to get to specific and important information on computers led to widgets on OSX and gadgets on Vista, and Palm has experience here with their Palm Query Applications (PQAs) of old. Heck, think of the Google Maps application as an example.
  5. It will not be a UMPC, it will be too small
  6. It will have a touchscreen and will likely have some sort of thumbboard or keyboard

It's still precious little to go on given how important this new device is supposed to be for Palm and its future. It's shocking that after more than 2 years of development word of what exactly this device is, does, or even looks like hasn't leaked out.

So what do we do now, wait patiently until tomorrow night with our hands folded calmly in our laps? Bollocks to that, we're going to engage in some wild speculation.

The Foleo?

Before we get into the patents, let's note that companies file patents that they never use, or even intend to use, all the time. So it's fairly silly to assume that finding a Palm patent is a direct indication that a device based on that patent is in the works. However, looking at a whole list of recent patents may start to build a story of what seems to be on Palm engineers' minds - and that may finally be enough to go on.

We should note, however, that the TreoCentral community has been on this ball for a while now. Note, for example, this well-written post from January, 2007, by ballistic:

I'd also like to point out an active trademark that Palm holds, Foleo (Serial #78555579).

Ballistic goes on to analyze the details listed in the trademark, noting that it seems to indicate data will be pushed to the device and that it seems to cover location-based services. Ballistic also notes a couple of patents that many others have pointed out, namely, Compact palmtop computer system and wireless telephone with foldable dual-sided display and Non-rigid mounting of a foldable display. From these two patents we get these two very seductive images (click for full size):

...this would indeed be a compelling device: smaller than a UMPC but it unfolds to reveal a gorgeously huge screen. It would fit with the long-standing Palm demand that their devices be "pocketable" yet would offer the advantages of a much larger screen typically found on a small laptop.

Going out on a limb

Consider, however, a few other patents that Palm has filed. Taken as a group, they offer a tantalizing new possibility for this 3rd type of device, a detachable screen:

"Accessory module for handheld devices" is, on the surface, fairly mundane. It's merely a patent in which "An accessory module or accessory display device for a handheld computer is disclosed." But wait a minute, an "accessory display device"? That sounds awfully odd. It seems pretty silly to attach a little detachable display like the photo at right, does it not? So let's move on.

Or perhaps we shouldn't move on - because here's another patent in the same vein! "Detachable expandable flexible display". Indeed, the included images just as exciting as the earlier-posted Foleo patent drawings (clck for full size):

The text of the patent also includes some useful hints:

Accordingly, there is a need for a display screen that can display data from a handheld computer on a larger screen without substantially increasing the size or weight of the handheld computing device. There is also a need for a handheld computing device having a removable, detachable display. Further, there is a need for methods of using a handheld computer to display greater amounts of image information compared with conventional displays. [...] It would be desirable to provide a system and/or method that provides one or more of these or other advantageous features.

You can add an improved touchscreen patent that requires fewer layers (and thus may perhaps be more flexible?) to the mix here. There's also an interesting (and perhaps deliberately difficult to follow, as is sometimes common with these things) patent that describes a way to have one display interact with another called "Moveable output device" as well. And as long as we're folding the display, we may as well fold the keyboard up as well.

What seems to be described here is a two-piece mobile computer that straddles the area between the Ultra-Mobile PC (the UMPC), the laptop, the smartphone, the iPod, and the PDA. "Desirable" doesn't do justice to the depths to which we would covet such a device. We're going out on a limb here, but this is what we're envisioning for the Foleo:

A two-piece device that can be used in a way very similar to current data-centric PDAs currently available, but that has a detachable touchscreen that can be unfolded to a relatively large size for easy reading, writing, surfing, email, etc. It will feature a multi-tasking, Linux-based PalmOS.

Yes, it's pie-in-the-sky. But imagine:

  • Like a laptop, it would feature a powerful operating system capable of multitasking and could perform many tasks that most users require a PC for. It would feature some sort of keyboard (though likely not a full-sized one) and, most importantly, a very large screen.
  • Like a smartphone, it would be able to communicate wirelessly with the word via high-speed data networks. It would gather important information automatically without any effort by the user. It may also be able to make telephone calls.
  • Like an iPod, the device would have a (relatively) large hard drive for storing data. It would be a compelling device for watching videos and listening to music.
  • Like a PDA, it would have a touch screen and good power management. Also like a PDA, it would be instant-on and snappy to navigate. And we're going to say WiFi will be in there too.
  • Like a UMPC, it would, uh... actually, this would be the device that succeeds where all UMPCs fail: pocketable, easy to use, large screen, instant on, and long-lasting battery.


So there you have it, TreoCentral's "out on a limb, it's probably way off" prediction for Jeff Hawkins' mystery device. We'll have full coverage of the announcement tomorrow evening, so stay tuned to find out just how wrong we are. ;-)

Discuss this article here

(Special thanks to Michael Ducker for reminding us to revisit the patent pages used in this article.)

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