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Start-up brings storage to wireless

The same technology that lets computer users store information remotely on the Internet is on its way to cell phones.

The same technology that lets computer users store information remotely on the Internet is on its way to cell phones.

Beginning later this year, users of cell phones that have an Internet browser made by Access, whose customers include Japanese wireless giant NTT DoCoMo, will be able to use files that once were off limits because they were larger than their phones were built to handle.

The technology behind this is called "remote storage," which lets consumers take files, store them on the Internet, then access them whenever they want. It's been a part of the wired Internet's business for more than half a decade.

Storage-system makers such as EMC and Network Appliance have built huge businesses selling their wares to corporations and telecommunications companies trying to organize vast sums of digital information. Access would like to tap a similar need in the wireless networking market.

Access is using U.S. company i-Drive to make this possible, according to a deal announced Tuesday. Analysts say there are more of these types of deals in the works.

Access' service has a chance to take off, analysts say, especially in Asian and European countries where the cell phone is often the computing vehicle of choice.

"I expect the most interest in the near term is from markets outside the United States like in Japan where there is a consumer base that wants to manage and access rich media," said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo.

He and other analysts say that regardless of where the service is used, the idea is intriguing because it addresses one of the longest-standing problems that phone customers and the telephone industry have faced.

There are tens of thousands of software developers right now trying to create new things for a phone to do. Telephone service providers are building networks to stream these same software applications to cell phones.

Even handset makers have been preparing phones that can do the stuff that once was considered science fiction, like installing full-color screens for videoconferencing, interactive game playing or global positioning.

But one major roadblock has always been in the way: A cell phone is small for a reason; it needs to be portable and unobtrusive. But sacrificing size also means sacrificing the amount of hardware installed on the phone.

A typical phone comes with the ability to store about 2 megabytes of information. A music file, on the other hand, is anywhere between 5 megabits and 8 megabytes.

But by using remote storage, the file doesn't have to live inside the phone's limited memory. Instead, bits and pieces are sent one at a time for a phone to use. The technique is known as streaming.

"The reason this wasn't done earlier, quite frankly, is that the technology that we dealt with and the technology available to the mass market wasn't there," said Marty Smuin, Access' executive vice president.