Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/04/01/life_drive_to_pda_future/

PalmOne 'Life Drive' photos surface

Points to the next stage in the PDA's - and the PC's - evolution

By Tony Smith

Posted in Mobile, 1st April 2005 12:06 GMT

Analysis PalmOne's speculative hard disk-equipped PDA, said to be dubbed the 'Life Drive', took a small step closer to become a real product this week when pictures of the device were posted on the web.

But the pictures, and the rumoured specification of the device in them, point to something more significant that merely the next Tungsten to be released. If the speculation is accurate, the new PalmOne device marks a major step on the path toward personal data that's truly mobile, truly with us at all times.

The shots - not posted today, 1 April, we should point out - are blurred and JPEG'd to heck, but they do lend weight to the mock-up image that surfaced last week.

The older picture showed an aluminium-hued casing with rounded corners and a screen bevel sloping away to the edge of the unit. There's a large colour portrait display with a virtual Graffiti 2 character-entry area above PalmOne's usual oval five-way navigation control and a now-rectangular application activation button cluster.

The new shots confirm the mock-up's styling. There's no indication of the device's Palm OS incarnation, but a very hazy and flash-faded pic of the operating system's Copy dialog box appears to indicate the presence of an "internal HD" medium.

It's impossible to see the device's designation, but there's what appears to be 'PalmOne' at the bottom of and a single word above the screen, possibly 'Tungsten'.

As we noted last October, after the launch of the Flash-based Tungsten T5, that device's memory configuration, with Flash being used not simply as a non-volatile alternative RAM, but also set up as an internal drive, paved the way for the incorporation of compact hard drives once prices and capacities made sense.

That's not to say the so-called 'Life Drive' actually has a hard drive in it. The T5 had 160MB of Flash drive storage; rumours suggest the new model has 4GB of storage, which would indeed imply a hard disk, if that figure is correct. Up to a couple of gigabytes, Flash would probably make more sense for power conservation reasons - beyond that capacity the price becomes prohibitive, hence the HDD.

From PDA to Personal Server

The Life Drive has had a long genesis. Regular Register readers may recall Intel engineers talking about "personal server" products back in 2003. Then, they envisaged a PDA-sized unit equipped with a hard drive of sufficient capacity to hold an entire life's memories. That requires a much larger capacity HDD than the one PalmOne may (or may not) be about to launch - Intel R&D guy Roy Want calculated we'd need 97TB to digitise everything we see for 80 years, 16 hours a day, at 512Kbps - but you can see, perhaps, where the company's thinking may be leading.

PDAs evolved to hold personal information - address books, calendars, notes and so on. While they're traditionally what's meant by the phrase 'personal information', it's a very narrow definition. These days, we can add photos, music tracks and home videos, but why not all the Word documents and Excel spreadsheets we create for ourselves? All the CD, VHS and DVD covers knocked up on QuarkXPress, Freehand or Photoshop? All the PDFs the replace long-lost hardware and software manuals? Recipes, tax filings, Flash animations showing the expansion of the Western Front during World War I - personal information is a remarkably broad category, and there's no reason why folk won't want to take all this stuff with them wherever they go, even if they can't do so yet.

They can, of course, if they own a notebook computer, but there are times when you don't want it with you. But a PDA-sized gadget capable of being hooked up to any handy keyboard might be a different matter.

PalmOne may not be the only company with such a concept in mind. U3, the SanDisk and M-Systems-backed technology developer, has developed a platform for doing all this with USB Flash drives - all it requires is a PC somewhere and you've got immediate access to your Home folder. The capacity isn't there yet, but one day it will be. PalmOne's take on the idea has a key advantage: its own display. So does Apple's iPod, which likewise has been quietly evolving from music player to personal data carrier. Mobile phones too, to a lesser extent, though efforts there are hampered by manufacturers' desires to get you using the phone to view and manipulate your data, not simply to carry it between other machines better suited to such activities.

True mobility

Mobility means having the ability to take your data with you to use it where it's most appropriate, and that's not necessarily when you're actually on the move. Connecting you iPod Photo to your mother's TV will always go down better then forcing her to stare into that 2in screen.

The Life Drive/Tungsten 2005/whatever has a more suitable display, but in an increasingly wireless world, better connectivity is going to matter more. Which is why the rumoured Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support is welcome, the better, one day, to allow the unit to beam pictures straight to a nearby TV.

In the dotcom days, some pundits like to talk about the post-PC era. Five years or so on, we're still not there, and there's a lot of technology and standards development work that needs to be done before a world in which our personal data is truly mobile is born. But as PalmOne's Life Drive - even if it's now nothing more than a proof-of-concept unit, and not a soon-to-be-shipping product - and kit like the iPod Photo show, its gestation is coming along nicely. ®

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