OPINION: Move Over, Blackberry

This year's pick is likely to be an Apple, not a Blackberry, suggests Technology Editor David Strom.

January 22, 2004

7 Min Read
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Remember the floppy disk? I haven't had one on any of my computers that I routinely use and I don't miss them at all. They still are on a couple of machines in my lab, but mostly they are there for historical, not functional reasons.

Maybe I am getting too old for this industry -- When I started at PC Week back in the late 1980s, a colleague was using one of the original 360-KB floppies as his personal hard drive, filling it up and then deleting files on it when it was full. (No one ever told him, until I happened along, that the disks were removable and plenty more could be had for the taking in the supply closet.)

Back in the late 1980s, having a 1.44-MB floppy disk was a big deal, because you could fit all of your spreadsheets on it and still have plenty of room to spare. Then came 100 MB Zip disks, and I could fit everything I wrote on it with room to store the huge Outlook e-mail file that archived my digital life. After that we had recordable CDs, which hold about 700 MB, and at the time seemed unfillable too.

But mere megabytes is so over. These days, gigabytes is what is needed. And there are some interesting choices that you have to make. If you can get by on less than a gigabyte these days, the USB flash "keychain" drives are the ticket. If you need more, then you probably already have an iPod. It has become the runaway big disk of choice for everyone from teens to nerds. In fact, it is doing better than the PDAs that were supposed to archive our digital lives.

The vast majority of the current iPod owners buy them for the music storage, of course, and the ability to play their tunes wherever they are. Over the holiday break, it seemed like every teen I knew had received one and spent the holiday filling it up with music. But this year and next we'll see a growing number of people who use them as offline storage for more mundane files, and the ability to carry them around with you means your data is never too far from your person. That brings an entirely new dimension to the concept of personal storage. And that was the problem with the original Palms: They skimped on raw disk space.What exactly do you need to carry around with you? What is on your iPod? Let's see. (No, I still don't have one, incredible as that may seem.)

Years ago, in those floppy days of yore, when I toiled in the fields of IT end-user support for Humongous Insurance Corp., I had my Dopp kit of a series of floppies that had all the standard software (back then it was Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase III), including the illegal unlocked copies and a series of drivers for the various screens and printers that we had in the company. In those days, we had to contend with copy protection on the executable files of the software. Why did I carry around the unlocked versions? Because, like it or not, some end user was always deleting something and it was just easier to restore their configuration by copying the files onto their machine, or giving them a new set of floppies (this is back even before that spacious 5 MB hard disk model of the first IBM PCs came into existence, too). And this was for software that we had bought and paid for, and had legal licenses to use. I knew the days of copy protection were numbered when I had to do an emergency house call at the home of the CIO over one weekend because he had messed up his Lotus files. My magic disks came to the rescue then and there, and he became a personal convert to the anti-copy protection life.

But times haven't changed much. Today it is the tunes that are copy-protected, although that scheme is also doomed. As I found out back in the 1980s in my IT department, the trouble with copy protection is that it is too much trouble even under the best of circumstances. And while it is great that companies want to protect their intellectual property, when these protections get in the way of legitimate uses of their property, it gets me peeved. And when dealing with Windows and the myriad device drivers and OS versions, those "best circumstances" don't happen along all that much. As my friend Herb found out, it is easy enough to defeat any of the rights management software codes by just burning a CD with the protected tunes, and then ripping them back into your music library. He wasn't trying to become a digital pirate; he just wanted to get his tunes from one place to another, tunes that he had legitimately bought and paid for. I told him, operators at the Recording Industry of America are standing by to call his lawyer. But I don't want to get off track here and turn this into a rant against copy protection.

Now that there are millions of iPods -- almost as many as Linux or Mac desktops -- vendors are beginning to treat them as their own platform and are coming out with extensions or, for lack of a better word, peripherals. Belkin and others now make microphones that turn the iPod into a digital recorder, and there are FM radio attachments, car power attachments, and plenty of other things that you can accessorize your iPod with and end up spending more on the collection than a typical low-end PC will run now. But the brutal simplicity of Apple's design is that you can connect it to any Mac (and sometimes a Windows machine, too) and it instantly becomes just another external hard disk. And the brutal pricing strategy of Apple is that you are paying a huge premium for this external hard disk: the $20/gigabyte that the iPods typically go for (and even more per gig for the newer, cuter and smaller minis) is about $18/gigabyte more than you have to pay if you just go out and buy an external hard disk from, say, Maxtor or Seagate. Of course, those ordinary external drives aren't battery-operated, don't come in matching colors for your wardrobe and can't fit in your pocket -- yet. An external drive from CMS is pretty small (say twice the overall dimensions of an iPod) and can be powered from the USB port of a computer.

But what is on someone else's iPod will surprise you. Apple stores report that customers bring theirs in to copy software from the machines. But I think the IT implications are bigger than a bunch of overpierced, hyper-tattooed kids on a digital tear. The iPod, and its various Windows-based copycats, is bringing about a new era for IT management because now all this storage is roaming around the universe, where it can be lost, stolen and not accounted for. I think the biggest opportunity is to have personal databases on these iPods: Whether it is an entire archive of your e-mail, your favorite IT application or whatever, you now have enough hard disk elbow room to put a serious set of files on there. But the more data you carry, the bigger the opportunity for loss too.Forget about backing up this data -- never will happen. Instead, IT staffs have to embrace and extend the iPod concept, and make these units the roaming offsite backups that they learned about in IT school (or the school of hard knocks) and figure it into their enterprise backup plans. It isn't so far-fetched. Maybe the more cynical among you will look upon this suggestion as a way that Strom can finally get his iPod, care of the corporate IT largess (as if). But we'll see more software to embrace the iPod that isn't music-related in the coming year for sure. Move over BlackBerry, this is today's new executive PDA.

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