A Simple, Elegant Information-Delivery Solution

This week's column is a little off the beaten track from my usual topics, although it's definitely a storage issue. I thought I'd share a unique solution that I recently found for what I'm sure is a common storage problem.

I recently got myself volunteered to assist a nonprofit organization in completing a rather large computer-based project. The issue I had to deal with was that when the project materials showed up at my office, I found myself with close to 30 CD-R discs containing the 12GB of data that comprised the project's deliverables.

After I finished my part of the project, I talked to the folks to whom I'd be delivering it. They confirmed that they didn't have access to DLT tape drives, which meant that I had to figure out some way to deliver this 12GB project (which could no longer be broken up into smaller pieces). I first tried backing up the project to DVD- RW. I made sure that the clients had a copy of the backup software I used, but after a couple of long phone conversations with them, I gave up on trying to walk them through a successful restore of that backup. They insisted that it would work if I used CD-R instead of DVD-RW, so I went back to the drawing board and backed up the project to CD-R media, which worked no better for them than the DVD- R/W backup. (Actually, it was worse; the restore process reported successful results, yet they couldn't make the project run correctly and received reports of corrupted data when they attempted to execute the final project.) In both cases, I had run restores locally before shipping off the discs, and they worked correctly.

I considered uploading the project to one of my FTP sites, but I wasn't too keen about trying to upload that much data on a 384Kbps uplink and tying up my Internet connection for the hours that the upload would take.

By this time, I realized that the final deliverable I was working on wasn't going to fit very well on any of the removable media that I commonly used except for an external hard disk (and I use both IEEE 1394 and USB 2.0 external drives), so it looked as if I'd have to buy another hard disk, which I didn't really want or need. It wasn't so much the expense; I could have easily ordered a name-brand 60GB or 80GB USB 2.0 external drive online for just under $100 (although time constraints meant I'd actually have to buy one at a local computer superstore for about $120 plus tax). Instead, it was the fact that I'd be stuck with a useless drive; my current external drives are all in the 200-plus-GB range, and I didn't really want to add a small USB hard drive to any of my computers.

As I resigned myself to going out and buying an external hard drive, I realized that the problem's solution had been sitting on my desk all along: a small MP3 player I had bought for my daughter. She's notorious for losing things, so putting a $300 iPod or a $250 Dell DJ into her hands wasn't something I really wanted to do. But when I saw a listing for the Entempo Spirit 20GB MP3 player for $130 delivered, I thought it was worth a look. The Spirit is bigger than its competitors, but it's also available for significantly less. Most importantly for me, Windows XP recognizes the device as a removal drive and didn't require me to install a driver. The high- end music players require Windows drivers to be installed so that the OS will recognize the device.

I plugged in the Spirit, copied the project to it, wrapped the device in a sheet of bubble wrap along with a USB cable, stuck it in a flat-rate USPS Express Mail envelope, and dropped it off at the post office. I didn't need to include a power supply or any software; the software was unnecessary, and the internal battery would run the unit for about 10 hours. I had the MP3 player back in my hands in two days, the nonprofit had its project intact and installed on a server (and the organization's unpaid IT person was happy with the solution's simplicity), and I didn't have to invest in any unneeded hardware.

As hard-drive vendors continue to release more efficient small- form-factor drives and the cost of portable media players drops daily, it would seem that a market niche exists for information delivery, especially mixed-media information. Using a similar solution to deliver product databases, video presentations, and hard data to a sales force would give content-creation people a lot more flexibility in producing their deliverables because their content is no longer limited to the size of a CD-ROM or DVD. Media players' potential far exceeds the use that marketers and the public currently envision for them.

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