Why the REDFLY will succeed where the Foleo failed

Celio Corp. announced a new device called the REDFLY Mobile Companiion, which looks a lot like the never-launched palm Foleo. While Eric Zeman thinks it will fail as well, I have a strong hunch it will succeed. It seems I am not the only one.

 (picture of the Celio REDFLY)

First, let me say that I am sorry to see the Palm Foleo fail. First, because it was a respectable effort to innovate and that is always hard. Seconod because it kind of was an interesting idea. Also because Ben Combee, a good friend and one of the best engineers I have had the privilege to work with, was one of the lead engineers. Last, because it Palm Inc. invested time, effort and resources that could have been applied to creating a new Windows Mobile Treo, which is their core business.

The core value prop for both Foleo and REDFLY Mobile Companion is that mobile workers may need a bigger screen and a more comfortable keyboard than what you can get even with a good Pocket PC phone like the AT&T Tilt, yet they would prefer not to carry a laptop on short trips.

The idea has legs: The first indicator is the success of the HTC Advantage, which got PC Magazine's Editor's Choice and is a favorite of many power users. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a number of It Executives from Fortune 500 companies, and the people sitting at my table started discussing form factors. There was consensus about the attractiveness of a small phone like a Motorola Q9 or a Samsung Blackjack for everyday use but evereyone agreed many travelers wanted something more powerful for the road. While the Advantage is a good option, it could be too bulky for everyday use.

I mean, I carry my Windows Mobile phone with me at all times, I don't think I would do that if my primary phone was an Advantage. Of course, one option is to have two phones (each with a SIM card) and have both syncing your email. You could alternate between them seamlessly but you would need a voice and data plan for each which could add up to over a thousand dollars per year.

So then why will the REDFLY succeed? Because it has a slightly different approach than the Foleo: it is not another smart device but a dumb extension of your existing Windows Mobile phone. Let me explain: The Foleo was a full blown computer running Linux and a suite of apps which connected to a Treo using Bluetooth.

The approach has a number of problems: Using a custom version of Linux conveys strong security concerns, your data is stored both on the phone and on the Foleo. This means if the Foleo is stolen, who knows how secure is your email? Using a foleo would violate most advanced companies security policies. Would email be encrypted on the Foleo? Furthermore, the Foleo only worked with Treos. To top the list, it would only run email, an Office document viewer and maybe a few custom apps - a different set of software than what is running on your Treo.

That's why the REDFLY is a clever approach: think about it as a large external screen, a large external keyboard and a USB hub for your Windows mobile phone. You will see the same stuff on your phone screen as on the REDFLY, the typing goes directly to your phone, and if you plug a standard USB mouse into the USB hub you can use it to control your Windows Mobile phone. It is a dumb terminal - there is no memory or applications on the device. Your data never leaves your phone. You can use all the same apps: from Solitaire to your company's Mobile CRM application with no changes. Pretty sweet.

I met the CEO of Celio at CTIA in the fall, and I had the chance to play with a pre-commercial unit. We pluggeed it to a Windows Mobile Professional device (Pocket PC in WM5 terminology) and had a mouse connected to it as well. The experience was amazing. I forgot to add it also has a VGA port you can use to do presentations using PowerPoint Moble direct from the REDFLY.

For more information check the REDFLY product page online.

I think it is a winner - what do you think?

UPDATE: A few hours after I wrote this post i found this PC Magazine review of the REDFLY from Sascha Segan who shares very similar views on the value of this cool device.