PalmOne looks to LifeDrive for lifeline

Company hopes its new device will expand handheld into a repository for all manner of digital media. Photo: Breathing life into handhelds

PalmOne is hoping that the addition of a hard drive to the handheld computer will help breathe new life into a product that has lost a significant amount of its "cool factor" in recent years.

The company is formally announcing its LifeDrive product, a $499 handheld that includes a 4GB hard drive along with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless abilities. As previously reported, the move is an effort to expand the handheld into a repository for all manner of digital media, including photos, videos and music, while maintaining its abilities as a digital organizer.

But in many ways, this wide variety of abilities could be the biggest challenge for a device that must compete with Apple's iPod, Sony's PSP and other targeted gadgets.

PalmOne Life Drive

"It is definitely a marketing challenge to communicate that it can do all of these things really well," said Stephane Maes, PalmOne's director of product management for handhelds.

Maes likens the LifeDrive, the company's first handheld with a hard drive, to another successful electronics device that can do many things--the personal computer. In some instances, Maes said, the LifeDrive can even replace the laptop for business travelers, thanks to its ability to handle Microsoft Office documents, connect to corporate Exchange e-mail servers and access the Web through Wi-Fi.

But gadget buyers have historically tended to prefer mobile devices that do one thing well. Maes said that PalmOne may be able to sway some would-be buyers of such devices.

"We certainly see that some people who might buy an iPod would buy this," he said. "I wouldn't say that's the bulk of people that are going to buy it."

Initially, Maes said the company is largely expecting sales to come from the traditional market for PalmOne devices. Many people have not upgraded their Palm III or Palm V devices because they haven't seen a compelling reason to do so, Maes said. The company also hopes to gain from the market that Sony helped build with its Clie devices, which added multimedia features on top of the PalmOS. With Sony out of that sector, it is now available to PalmOne, Maes said.

In recent years, PalmOne has focused much of its energy on its Treo line and the growing market for more capable cell phones. Although the company has added new handheld models, that market has remained stagnant. If all goes well, Maes said PalmOne hopes to create a whole family of devices based on the LifeDrive.

"This is just the first in a new genre of products," he said.