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Mnemonic Devices

The wild success of Apple’s iPod music player is based on lots of ingredients, but one of the least obvious of them is about to give a boost to some other portable devices and may just turn these gadgets into competitors to the iPod itself. I’m talking about the little hard-disk drive at the iPod’s heart. It’s physically small enough to fit inside a handheld gadget, yet large enough in terms of capacity to store thousands of songs.

Back in 2001, the iPod was the first widely sold product to use one of these little hard disks. With a diameter of just under 2 inches, it’s smaller than the hard drives used in most laptops, yet it can hold up to 60 gigabytes of data, or around 15,000 songs. The midsize iPod Mini uses an even smaller version, albeit with decreased capacity. It’s just an inch in diameter but holds up to 6 gigabytes of data, enough for around 1,500 songs. (The lowend iPod Shuffle doesn’t use a hard disk, and it holds relatively few songs in its memory chips.)

But now these little hard disks are migrating to other devices — including cellphones and personal digital assistants — made by other companies, giving these gadgets some of the iPod’s magical combination of diminutive size and expansive capacity. And since these devices can play music, along with the various other functions they perform, they could soon become a challenge to the iPod.

For example, two big cell phone makers, Samsung and Nokia, have designed music-playing phones with small internal hard disks that hold a few gigabytes of data. Samsung’s hard-disk model is sold so far only in Korea, but could make it to the U.S. by the end of this year. Nokia’s will be rolled out late this year, probably first in Europe.

By late 2006, I expect Americans to have numerous choices in hard-disk cell phones.

The first PDA with a hard disk to be offered in the U.S. came out in May. It’s the $499 PalmOne Life-Drive. PalmOne sells the LifeDrive — with its large color screen and 4GB hard disk — as a portable way to store and view or play back music, videos, photos and office documents. It also features the usual Palm calendar, contact and notes functions, and with its Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networking, it can surf the Web and send and receive e-mail.

The LifeDrive is bulky — much larger and heavier than an iPod Mini with the same size hard disk. And it isn’t a great music player — it has touch-screen play, pause, fast forward and reverse rather than proper buttons, and it doesn’t come with headphones. But it could be the start of a trend for PDAs, since it should be possible to wedge a similar hard disk into a smaller device.

More likely, the bigger threat to the iPod will come from iPod-enabled cell phones. People have to carry their phones anyway, and some already offer music-control buttons and headphones. So if your phone can hold thousands of songs, why carry around a second, separate music player?

Of course, phonemakers still have to prove they can design music-playing phones that are as simple, elegant and cool as iPods. But that could happen.

Little hard disks could also revolutionize digital cameras, allowing photographers to store thousands of shots without lugging around a laptop, although I know of no camera to date that has a hard disk.

Another trend: Small hard disks will likely shrink even more. Already, there’s a company making one with a diameter smaller than an inch. But mini hard drives may also face a challenger of their own — high-capacity memory chips. The chips have tended to be costlier per unit of storage than the disks, but over time they could get competitive. Prices are dropping fast, and chipmakers are working on memory cards, like the one in your digital camera, that are capable of storing over 10 gigabytes.

For now, though, keep your eye on the little hard disk that powers the iPod. It may be powering lots of gadgets soon.

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