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Seagate thinks small with portable storage devices

Hard drive maker plans to unveil a new line of pocket-size portable storage devices at the Consumer Electronics Show next week. Photo: Seagate in your pocket

Seagate wants to lighten the load for customers who need all their computer data with them--but not necessarily their computer.

At the Consumer Electronics Show next week, the Scotts Valley, Calif.-based hard-drive maker will show off a new line of pocket-size portable storage devices called FreeAgent. Ranging in sizes of up to 750GB, the FreeAgent devices are designed to allow consumers to take the entire contents of their computers--photos, music files, videos, software applications, documents, e-mail, Internet links--with them. The FreeAgent devices contain a drive as well as a software stack to manage and encrypt files.

As a result, consumers won't have to take their notebooks with them, Seagate contends. They can plug a fully synchronized FreeAgent device into a terminal at an airport or a PC at a hotel and work from the same files and applications through VPN (virtual private network). Seagate says FreeAgent devices won't leave passwords or data traces on remote computers.

"It's literally about being able to escape the confines of your desktop or your laptop," said Jim Druckrey, senior vice president and general manager of Seagate Branded Solutions. "And have your content available to you where you need and when you need it. The fact that there's a hard drive inside is really secondary."

In a sense, the FreeAgent line is a twist on the NC concept touted in the last decade by Sun Microsystems and Oracle. With the NC, consumers were expected to store their data and applications on a central storage device that they could access through remote terminals. Sun wanted to convince customers they didn't need desktops or laptops. Concerns about network robustness, poor processor performance and a lack of terminals were some factors, among others, that prevented the concept from taking flight.

A few of those concerns have been ameliorated. The FreeAgent devices will be coming to market at a time when computers are easier to find. Processor performance will also be less of an issue because consumers will likely plug into remote PCs. USB keys have--to some degree--acclimated the public to carrying around large files.

Still, the company likely faces an uphill battle in convincing customers to ditch their laptops. Copying applications onto a laptop may also raise software licensing issues.

While the company will show off the products next week at CES, the goods won't start hitting shelves until February. There will be three categories of products. The FreeAgent Pro line will range in size from 320GB to 750GB. Along with integrated software tools for managing data, customers will also get 500MB of space on a Seagate Internet storage site for posting photos or other files. The Internet service is free for six months. Prices range from $199 to $419.

The FreeAgent Desktop data movers range in size from 250GB and 500GB and a little less functionality while the FreeAgent Go line of devices offer 12GB to 160GB of capacity.

Some of the synchronization technology came from Maxtor, which Seagate bought last year. Maxtor had begun to branch out into portable storage and Internet storage services before it was bought.