Sunday, June 03, 2007

Web Terminals: will anyone buy them?

Palm Foleo mobile companionOn 30 May 30 2007 Palm announced the Foleo mobile companion is to be available in late 2007. This is a diskless subnotebook with a 10" screen, designed to work with web based applications. This is similar to Intel's Mobile Internet Device (MID) , but with a bigger screen.

These units can be thought of something between an enlarged PDA and a shrunken laptop. The idea is that instead of carrying around a notebook computer with applications and data on a disk, you can have something smaller and lighter. The data and applications reside on the web and are accessed via an Internet connection, via WiFi to a hot-spot, or Bluetooth to your phone.

The media are skeptical of the Foleo and I share that skepticism. The unit depends for its success on being more portable than a subnotebook computer, enough web based applications and enough bandwidth to be useful. Palm's unit is not a lot smaller and lighter than current subnotebook computers.

Palm seem to have gone with the smallest size unit which can have full size keys on the keyboard. The 10 inch wide screen is about the same width as a QWERTY keyboard (I use a 12 inch 3:4 notebook, which has the same width screen).

Intel's Mobile Internet Device (MID) , is planned to have a 7 inch screen and will therefore have a much more cramped keyboard. I have owned and used such Pocket Computers in the past and have found them very useful. But they have not caught on as a mainstream product. Perhaps if customers seem them as large and smart PDAs, rather than dumbed down laptops, they will be successful.

The availability of web based office applications may make the difference. If you are using something like Google Apps and you normally use a web interface to access documents and email, then the web terminals will seem a natural way to work.

Previously using a non-Windows subnotebook computer has meant learning to use a different set of software and working out how to transfer documents from your desktop computer to the subnotebook and back. The subnotebook has a very limited memory and there is the need to juggle applications and data capacity.

With wireless Internet access and web based applications, the situation changes. The applications will look the same on the portable unit, as these are the same applications running on the same remote web server. There is no need to transfer documents as they can be worked on directly online. The document storage capacity is unlimited, as they are stored on the remote server. A broken or lost unit will not result in any loss of documents, as they are stored on the remote server.

However, this assumes you have cheap, reliable and sufficiently high speed Internet access to to use web applications. At least 64 kbps seems to be needed. A WiFi hot-spot would be sufficient, but mobile phone access may be problematic. iBurst at 256/64kbps works well (I use it in Canberra/Sydney/Melbourne and Brisbane). Ordinary GSM access at 9.6 kbps would not be sufficient. 2.5G would be adequate and 3G more than enough. But in Australia at least, this would be prohibitively expensive for most users, at the rates carriers currently charge.

One possibility will be the use of local versions of web based applications. The idea would be that the user would be able to download a document and its application, edit the document and then upload it later. Essentially this is the way AJAX applications already work, but they depend on Internet access being available every few seconds.

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