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Goodbye, PC; hello, PS (Personal Server)

Your life on your mobile phone

IDF Intel's vision of the future of mobile computing is a hard drive with built in wireless. That, at least, is the concept the company chose to present to journalists at its Developer Forum, this week.

The idea is simple: what makes any computer unique is the data held upon it, so all people should need to carry with them is that information. And while storage densities continue to grow exponentially, soon folk will have a lot of information to carry around.

That, plus uncertain network bandwidth at any given location, means that the network isn't going to play host to all that data, said Intel R&D's Roy Want, speaking at the company's Developer Forum today.

"Computer scientist Andy Tanenbaum said: 'Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway'," Want said. In other words, when you're on the move, you can access data faster if you have it with you.

But Intel has more in mind than a highly capacious USB Flash drive. Want outlined a device capable of holding terabytes of data and with enough computing power to run an operating system and the software it needs to communicate with other devices. And wireless connectivity too. Users will be able to get away without taking a keyboard, mouse and display with them because the unit - Want calls it a Personal Server - can use and screen and input device in the immediate vicinity.

Bluetooth provides the template: your PS stays in your backpack while you access its content by bashing away on a wireless keyboard and peering into a similarly equipped monitor.

Or a public display screen. Want suggests that such a system might be able to detect and utilise any local hardware. At the airport, it would transmit your personal itinerary, cross-referenced with flight and gate information from a local server, onto the monitor you happen to be standing under.

We'll leave aside the question of what happens if more than one person is standing by the screen - Do you want other people to see where you're going? What if they want to see where they're going at the same time? Want admits the concept is a "work in progress".

Intel R&D has already built a prototype, a transparent box the size of a personal cassette player, incorporating an XScale processor running Linux and a WebDAV-enabled version of Apache to provide remote access. The demo unit has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth - the latter using the new Personal Area Network (PAN) profile to enable IP communications between Bluetooth devices - and UPnP support to ensure the network can be set up without user intervention.

The PS' storage is limited now to tens of gigabytes, but Want foresees a time, not so far off, when data densities have risen to the point where anyone's whole life can be stored as audio or video. Digitising everything you see, for 80 years, 16 hours a day, at 512Kbps requires 97TB of data capacity, says Want. At the rate at which data densities are growing, that will be possible in 14 years, he calculates.

"Soon you could have a device which would give you the perfect memory for your lifetime," Want said. At any point in your life, you can look back and see exactly what you were doing at any given time, he added. "It's not that far away."

No, but actually finding the right moment among all those terabytes of memories might be. It's going to need some pretty smart search routines, we reckon.

Intel's vision isn't too far-fetched, though. Apple's iPod has already reached the point where most of us can now carry around our entire CD collections and more in a unit the size of a cigarette packet. Following Want's extrapolation of storage technology trends, it won't be long before we'll be stuffing DVDs onto iPods too. If Apple chucks in Bluetooth, we'll have the wireless capability Want talks about too.

Want, however, reckons the cellphone, not the MP3 player, is destined to take on the role of the PS. "A lot of people will say, 'I don't want to carry another box with me, what I want is one device.' So why shouldn't this device be a cellphone of the future?Phones have Bluetooth, a processor, memory and a small display. They have a lot of what the PS has, except it's very underpowered for this capability. But in five years' time, you merge these two functions together. So you have a device which is small enough and light enough to carry everywhere, except now it's also all my storage, my work environment."

It's not a PC, however, Want is quick to point out. "You still need a PC to number crunch, and to interact with my data." Indeed, the PS concept doesn't make the PC redundant, it makes the proliferate, he argues, in order to provide users with access to their data wherever they are.

Trouble is, just as uncertain network access and security means it's better to take your data with you, uncertain processing and display resources at any given location may also mean it's better to take your display with you too; so you're back to carrying a notebook. But a phone would be easier.

Either way, ntel continues to do very nicely, thank-you, selling processors. ®

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