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PortalPlayer Photo Edition paves way for Picture iPod

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PortalPlayer, the company behind the hardware, software and processor technology that powers Apple's iPod, will soon launch a upgraded version of its chip/firmware combo that paves the way for a Photo iPod.

PortalPlayer Photo Edition will support synchronising digital photos between portable devices and host PCs, along with on-device playback, according to CEO Gary Johnson, interviewed by EE Times.

The Photo Edition comprises new, 180nm system-on-a-chip silicon based on two 80MHz ARM cores, plus a real-time OS updated with photo handling code that supports the JPEG and Motion JPEG picture formats. The device's software package supports picture manipulation features like editing, rotating, cropping and red-eye correction. It can also allow users to add music to slide-shows. All these features handily replicate functionality provided on the desktop by Apple's iPhoto.

The platform supports TV output, USB 2.0, Firewire and Ethernet, along with high-resolution colour LCDs. In addition to small form-factor hard drives, it can use Cornice's new 1in micro drive system. PortalPlayer has also incorporated support for a two- to three-megapixel digicam into the unit.

Interestingly, PortalPlayer has support for multiple Digital Rights Management (DRM) regimes, enabling device manufacturers to support a variety of online music services. It's unlikely that Apple, as a provider of such a service, would add that feature to future iPods, but it paves the way for iTunes Music Service support in non-Apple devices.

Speculation the Apple is working on a video iPod has been a constant topic on Mac fan forums, but one CEO Steve Jobs has dismissed a couple of times this year. But if the time isn't right for a portable video player - it can be done, but do punters really want to watch movies on a tiny screen when notebooks provide a far better portable playback experience? - the boom in digicams suggests that a portable photo library is a logical follow-on for the iPod line.

With its PDA-style calendar and contact book functionality (courtesy of Apple's iCal and Address Book software), adding photo support would broaden the iPod's appeal as a portable personal data carrier. It also helps to continue to differentiate the Apple product from the horde of music-only clones the compact, hard drive-based machine has spawned.

As for PortalPlayer, the company needs to work quickly. Microsoft's attempt to muscle in on the sector, the Portable Media Center platform, is due for release during the second half of 2004, with devices available next Christmas. Based on Windows CE .NET, PMC offers photo library functionality, TiVO-style TV recording and video playback, as well as music. Microsoft has already won the commitment of Creative, Viewsonic, iRiver, Sanyo, Samsung and Tatung.

PortalPlayer has the advantage of a more tightly integrated software and hardware system, but just as Apple's vertical integration has led to advantages and big disadvantages as the computer market has evolved, Microsoft's horizontal approach may cause PortalPlayer problems.

The real loser, however, will be the likes of PalmSource and PalmOne. All these technologies will, we reckon, define the 21st Century PDA - a portable personal data archive, kept fed from a computer but allowing individuals to take all their most precious information with them wherever they go. Even without direct data entry, these devices will provide a powerful alternative to today's PDAs, already under threat from smartphones. And both Microsoft and Apple have powerful handheld data entry technologies they can add to their respective offerings.

Many people want single devices, but quite a few don't. But the number of handhelds they are willing to carry around isn't large. A phone, certainly, and probably one other device. Increasingly that second unit will be a hard disk-based machine that holds not just PIM data, but music, photos and probably video too. And a lot of it. ®

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