Why bother carrying a bulky laptop around when all you need is what’s stored in it? That’s the question which prompted IBM researchers in New York state to develop SoulPad, a software package which allows computer users to separate a computer’s “soul” – the programs, settings and data it holds – from its body, the disks, keyboard, screen, processor and other hardware from which it is comprised.

“We were looking at moving computing spaces from one place to another, and what makes a computer your computer,” says Chandra Narayanswami, one of the IBM researchers. “It’s not the hardware itself but all the bits you have put in it, so we figured that if you could move the bits from one computer to another you wouldn’t need to carry around a whole laptop.”

Once a computer’s soul is stored on a storage device like a portable USB hard drive or an iPod with SoulPad software, it can be carried around and reincarnated in another computer simply by plugging in the storage device and starting the computer up. SoulPad bypasses the disks and all the software stored on this computer, bringing the original computer back to life in exactly the same state that it was in before its soul was stored on the SoulPad device, but in a different body. The effect is the same as hibernating a laptop computer in the middle of a work session, then bringing the work session out of hibernation on a different machine.

SoulPad is made up of a stack of three basic building blocks. The first is Knoppix, a version of Linux that runs directly from the SoulPad storage device and configures itself for the computer it finds itself running on automatically. This is used to run VMware Workstation, which allows the all-important top layer to run.

This top layer is a virtual machine – a standard desktop PC emulated by software. The virtual PC can then run any operating system which would run on the hardware it is emulating – Windows, Linux, and soon perhaps even MacOS – and programs which use that operating system. The entire virtual machine is encrypted and protected by a password or USB key to ensure that only the owner can use it.

The key benefit of SoulPad is portability. Storing the SoulPad software and the soul of a standard computer requires about 5Gb of disk space – just a fraction of the capacity of many pocket-sized portable drives or music players. Mobile phones may have this sort of capacity in the near future.

For those who don’t like carrying a laptop, there are also important security benefits. That’s because the alternative is often to use public computers in business centres, airports or internet cafes. But confidential business information may be left on these computers after the user has gone, and they may also be infected with malicious software which captures passwords or credit card details. But with SoulPad there is no possibility of leaving information on the public computer or falling victim to malicious software on it, as the public computer’s disk drive is bypassed totally by SoulPad, and its memory is wiped when the SoulPad device is removed.

The main drawback to a SoulPad device is that it can only be used where there is computer access, but Mr Narayanswami believes that if SoulPad becomes commercially available it would make the provision of public computers much easier.

“The SoulPad model would allow hotels or airport lounges to provide virtually maintenance-free PCs, as they wouldn’t need any software and they couldn’t get viruses. Business travellers used to carry an iron and alarm clock with them, but now they don’t as they expect them to be provided in a hotel. SoulPad makes it easier for a computer to be a simple piece of furniture which you expect in your room.”

■ SoulPad is not yet available commercially but some alternatives exist.

P.I Protector Mobility Suite (www.imaginelan.com) takes e-mail, address book and server settings from Outlook or Outlook Express and copies them to a memory stick. When you plug the stick into a public computer you can send and receive e-mails or browse your mail boxes just as if you were using your own computer.

Virtualisation specialist VMware has released a free program called VMware Player which can run virtual machines – software emulations of computers. If a public PC has VMPlayer installed it is possible to run a virtual machine with the Mozilla open source web browser preinstalled which can be downloaded free and carried around on a memory stick.

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