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palmOne ahead by a short neck

Sometimes it seems to be floundering. The headline for its Tungsten T5, for example, is 256MB of memory – a huge amount of internal storage for a PDA at launch time last October. But only 55MB is available for applications, 160MB is dedicated to data storage (the remainder is not user accessible), and you have to go into ‘Drive Mode’ to get to the storage, and while in this mode you can’t sync. Hmmm.

Sometimes, palmOne raises the bar for the opposition a notch or two, oldies among the readership will remember the superb Palm V, while those with shorter memories may recall the much maligned original Zire. Yes I know, mono screen, not much memory, very ‘entry level’. But that was the point, wasn’t it - to entice some who might never have thought a PDA was for them to have a go, and I thought it was a smashing idea.

So when I go to palmOne product launches it is always with a little trepidation as I am never quite sure whether to expect a ‘wow’ or a ‘what?’

The company raised more than a few eyebrows – including one of mine - when it launched its Mobile Manager category of products. The press release announcing the category defined Mobile Managers as “designed for customers who are eager to take full advantage of the trend toward “digital everything” – from documents and email to music, images and video, as standalone files or in organized folders.”

The LifeDrive is the first device to embody this new hardware line and thank goodness it seems to be a ‘wow’ rather than a ‘what?’ Now this isn’t going to be a review of the LifeDrive – you’ll get that all in good time. Nope, this is about how the LifeDrive raises the bar for the opposition just a notch or two, but more like half a dozen of them, and does it at a really opportune time.

The LifeDrive isn’t small, and it isn’t pretty but it is very, very clever. You probably won’t read any reviews that say it is a whole new approach to PDA hardware looks, that it’s svelt, that does for the cult of the PDA what Motorola’s Razr has done for phones or the iPod for portable music players. But put your aesthetic hat in the cupboard for a moment, and start thinking about features and potential. You’ll soon realise that what palmOne has done with the LifeDrive is open a world of possibilities for PDAs that just weren’t there before.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The LifeDrive was launched a week after Microsoft formally announced its upgrade to Windows Mobile. Now called Windows Mobile 5, the announcement took place in two phases: Microsoft made us wait almost a month after initial launch before announcing an Exchange Server upgrade offering Push Email.

Windows Mobile 5 is an extension of an existing platform. It provides more for developers, and for end users too, but it is about consolidating, not about trying something new. The LifeDrive, on the other hand, pushes at a door palmOne sees as already ajar – that of high storage capacity mobile devices – and that is why the LifeDrive is a potential revolution for PDA users.

The headline is storage. LifeDrive has 4GB of it - an order of magnitude more than you’ll find in any other PDA. For many people this is enough memory for their entire My Documents folder, but more can be added via SD cards (1GB cards are about £60 at the moment).

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