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Patent offers clue in mystery of Xbox hard drive

Microsoft may not be planning to ditch the hard drive in its game console after all, judging from a new patent covering the way the Xbox saves game data.

Then again, maybe the next Xbox will have a hard drive.

The likely fate of the game console's storage medium--the subject of ongoing speculation as Microsoft closely guards details on the planned successor to the current Xbox--got a new twist this week from a patent granted to the software giant.

U.S. patent 6,716,102, granted Tuesday to Microsoft, covers methods for storing data about games in progress.

The patent specifically references "a gaming system (that) includes a hard disk drive for storing applications and other data," indicating Microsoft may be more committed to equipping future Xbox configurations with onboard storage than previously thought.

A Microsoft representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Beyond confirming agreements with key suppliers--including chipmakers IBM, ATI Technologies and Silicon Integrated Systems--Microsoft has steadfastly refused to discuss plans for the successor to the current Xbox.

But company insiders have suggested the next version of the console--expected to hit the market late next year--may not include a hard drive, one of several measures intended to cut production costs for the money-losing product. That idea was bolstered in February, when flash memory products manufacturer M-Systems announced it had signed a contract to create high-capacity removable storage devices for future versions of the Xbox.

But the new patent describes internal, hard-drive storage as a key advantage for the Xbox over competing game consoles, allowing larger storage capacity and room to segregate data on individual games from other information, such as hardware and system settings.

"There is a need for an improved system for managing data in a gaming system that includes an internal data storage device, such as a hard disk drive," the patent says. "Additionally, there is a need for an improved system for displaying information regarding data stored in the gaming system."

The patent goes on to give a detailed description of file structure, naming conventions and other methods intended to make it easier for people to find and manage game data.