Is Palm about to introduce a web browsing tablet?

Despite all the recent punditry and pronouncements of Palm’s impending sale, the company continues to chug along on the smartphone front, while preparing to unveil a new product line. Could this new product be like the ‘Firefox Computer’ that I wrote about earlier this year? Will it compete with the Nokia N800 that I wasn’t overly enthused about? Jeff Hawkins, the brains behind Palm, has been dropping not-so subtle hints over the last few months about ‘a third line of business’ – traditional PDAs and smartphones being the other. Combined with the introduction of a new Linux based operating system (supposedly PalmOS retro-compatible) and the recent Opera announcement, it looks like Palm is poised to move up the productivity device chain from smartphone to some sort of ‘smart tablet’. Ed Colligan, Palm’s CEO, stated that this new device would not be dependent on wireless carriers, but have wi-fi connectivity. All of these factors point to a device that will compete head to head with the N800.

Palm has much to gain at this mid-tier, the spot between a cramped smartphone and a bulky laptop. Microsoft’s UMPC (Origami) devices haven’t yet lived up to the hype of being portable laptop replacements, but Palm may be able to drive the space. Building up from a the architecturally restrictive environment of PDAs and smartphones, one would hope that Palm’s engineers know how to keep bloat out of this type of product line. Third party developers for the PalmOS have already shown how powerful the decade old operating system can be, despite tight memory and performance restrictions. Palm has also learned that, even in the smallest devices (like smartphones), there really isn’t a replacement for a real keyboard. As I said in my review of the N800, the on screen keyboard is an inelegant solution for real productive use. Hopefully these realizations have inspired the engineers of the new product line.

Obviously price-point, battery life, and ubiquitous connectivity will play a key factor it this product line’s success as well. I could put another dozen or so things I’d like to see from this product line, but for starters I just hope that the operating system is open enough that Firefox can be readily installed on it (unlike the N800). Maybe then I’ll have my ultimate portable Firefox computer!