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A Conversation with Jeff Hawkins

Thu May 31, 2007 - 10:27 AM EDT - By Dieter Bohn


After interviewing Brodie Keast and before my (sadly brief) hands-on with the Foleo, I was lucky enough to get to sit down for a chat with Jeff Hawkins along with Ryan Kairer of PalmInfocenter and Ina Fried from cnet. I had my video camera along and was all set to tape the whole thing. Hawkins, though, was understandably tired of having his game face on and said something to the tune of "Sure, you can video tape this and I guess I'll be a little more careful about it. Or not."

The choice between getting a video of the inventor of the Treo and hearing his unfiltered thoughts on the Foleo and smartphones at large "ain't no choice at all." So I turned off the camera while Jeff turned up his excitement about Foleo. Here are TreoCentral's notes and thoughts on our conversation1.

It's the best idea I've ever had

If I learned nothing else from my trip to get a chance to see the Foleo in the "flesh" it's this: Jeff Hawkins either is genuinely excited about the Foleo or he's an incredibly good actor. He started our conversation by talking about a theme that's familiar to anyone who's been following the story of the Foleo: First the Palm Pilot created a new category, then the Treo did, now it's happening again with the Foleo.

"We've made three 'category defining products.' This is the biggest one of all," said Hawkins. Given the relative skepticism with which the Foleo has been received, this is a very bold statement. Yet Hawkins is unabashed in his enthusiasm for the product. "A lot of people thought the Pilot was a stupid idea."

Hawkins then went on an extended riff on the origins of the Palm Pilot. What Palm really intended to do was make a pocket computer, but of course in terms of cost and the then available chips, the technology wasn't ready for it yet. What it was, though, was a step in the direction they wanted to move. It was a way to get their foot in the door in the minds of consumers and into the market as well.

Here was the lesson of the Pilot: "With any new product, you have to find somebody who wants to buy it." With the Pilot, that person was somebody looking to replace a bulky binder-style organizer. What Palm aimed for was the creation of a new category rather than try to just "shrink a computer." That's why Hawkins doesn't believe the UMPC is successful now and why it may never be - there's not a large enough group of 'initial customers.'

The lessons of the Pilot heavily influenced Palm's choices when making the Foleo. The decision to focus on just a few core applications at launch (email, browsing, office, and phone sync) is a result of that decision. "It's really a two stage process."

So who is the target market for the Foleo? In a word, executives. Hawkins said he has received a lot a positive responses from executives at the conference. "They said, 'This is exactly what I've been wanting.'" While it's not surprising that Hawkins would describe positive responses to the Foleo in the midst of its announcement, the focus on executives is telling. Hawkins understands that the Foleo as it currently exists isn't necessarily the super-device we were looking for. But just as the Pilot started as 'just and organizer' and the VisorPhone started 'just as a phone slapped on a PDA,' (my quote, not his), the Foleo seems to be only starting as 'just a mobile companion.'

Rethinking the Smartphone

Just before interviewing Hawkins, I hurriedly asked a bunch of folks to send me one question I should ask. Michael Ducker sent me one that had been sitting in the back of my mind all day - "Is it really a stealth product like the VisorPhone was?" Something Hawkins had said earlier in the day: clicked with me:

He said he expects initial sales numbers to be small: "It's not going to be a driver in the short term. But it allows us to rethink how you design smartphones."

So - "How does this allow you to do that, to rethink smartphones?"

Not too surprisingly, this question really got Hawkins excited. "I can't really go into it [too much]." Hawkins then discussed a theme we've heard often from Palm Execs - the difficult tradeoffs in making a smartphone. A smartphone has a screen that's as large as possible, has a battery that will last throughout a full day of use, has a keyboard that's easy to type on, a processor, memory, etc. All these features have to be balanced very carefully - they limit the ways in which a smartphone can be designed.

Suddenly, for Hawkins, having the Foleo allows him to make a sort of end-run around some of these issues (like the screen and keyboard, the two most-cited features of the Foleo). "I can think about these problems differently. It gives me a different palette I can use to think about apps. [...] It moves the burden of email [for example, to the Foleo], frees up the balance of functionality."

Hawkins then returned to a theme that he's mentioned in the earlier hints he'd given about the Foleo. Imagine if you had "a ton of storage, a ton, basically unlimited storage" on your smartphone. Add that to the fact that you're no longer as constrained by all of those "tradeoffs" that usually apply to the smartphone's design. "I have to just give you a tease here. But that's the direction we're thinking." Hawkins would say no more.

The key, I think, is two-fold. One: the Foleo, as it's currently being marketed (perhaps even as it's currently being made) hasn't achieved what Hawkins has planned for it yet. Two: Neither is the smartphone.

1. Quotes are as accurate as I can make them based on my scribbles, fyi.

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