Tuesday, December 13, 2005

X-Mas List Item #2: Flash Hard Drive

Here's another easy one for you, Quantum Future Santa. Hard drives made of flash memory are at most a few years out. Let me tell you why.

From an engineering standpoint, they can be built now. I have no doubt that some hacking power users are doing this as I write (the kind of people that would buy this fun little drive based on ordinary PC ram). 2GB flash chips are the hot sellers today. If you stick five of those together you can make a 10GB drive.

10 GB is tiny by today's standards (200-300GB is typical for new drives now). But 10GB is enough room to store an operating system and the applications you use most. Your documents will also fit very comfortably.

So, a 10GB flash-based hard drive you can probably handle 70 to 100 percent of your computer related activity. If you store massive amounts of music or photographs, or any number of videos, you'll probably need a traditional hard disk standing by. But there's no reason you can't have both. In fact, Flash-n'-Platter will be an ideal marriage for a number of years ahead.

What's the appeal? Flash drives have no moving parts. They are faster, quieter, and more rugged than the spinning platters we use now. They also consume less power. All of the above make flash attractive for desktops and a slam-dunk for laptops. (Interesting side-note: You're not crazy if you think hard drives are getting noisier. A lot of that has to do with the software we run today. This little article explains how something as simple as an instant messenger buddy logging out can cause four or five different programs to thrash about on your drive, all for good reasons.)

So, I will accept this x-mas gift in either of two forms: a standalone flash drive that I can mount alongside my platter drive, or a hybrid drive that contains both types of storage. (Hybrids are already said to be under development.) As one who is comfortable pulling stuff in and out of my machine, I would prefer the pure flash option. But the hybrid has its charms, too.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The problem is the price.

If you shop around you can probably get 2GB of flash today for just under a hundred bucks. Assuming manufacturers can get steep discounts, let's say they can build a 10GB hard drive for $400.00. (Remember there's a little more to making a drive than sticking the 5 chips together). That's 40 dollars per gigabyte.

A discounted traditional 250GB drive goes for about 110 bucks today. That's about 40 cents per gigabyte.

So, gigabyte for gigabyte, flash is a hundred times more expensive! Ouch.

But one good reality check deserves another. How many people can actually put 250GB to good use? The runaway technological arms race among storage manufacturers has left us with these cheap, cavernous drives that home users have to work to fill. Video is about the only thing that can do it.

So give us a 10 or 20GB flash drive, and we can save spinning up our platters for when we're playing with video.

Oh. Right. $400.00 for 10GB is still much too expensive.

Fine. Let's look at the state of the flash memory industry.

Nearly all flash chips today go into portable gadgets. These include cell phones, digital cameras, and, especially, music players. In fact, Apple, maker of the dominant iPod brand, is expected to suck up 25% of the entire global output of flash memory in 2006 all by itself!

But Apple is running out of room to grow here. The portable player market will soon be saturated. How do I know?

The video iPod.

Let me explain.

The iPod has sold phenomenally well, and inspired a huge variety of offerings from Apple's competitors – not all of them garbage. But when everyone who wants a music player has one, the only thing left to do is sell them a better one. Apple has done this. It has moved beyond its classic iPod – which has a tiny spinning platter drive inside – and into sleeker flash-based models. Each new generation has been smaller and had more capacity.

The problem for Apple shows up when capacity outstrips the size of the buyer's music collection. Admittedly, I'm not a conossieur, but my complete collection barely fills 2GB in mp3 form. Why would I buy anything bigger?

Maybe because there was other stuff I wanted to put on. Or to satisfy a techno-macho urge. Apple is trying very hard to give me both.

The iTunes Music Store doesn't make a huge profit; that was never the point. The idea behind ITMS was that there should be a way to buy music for an iPod that was as slick and stylish as the 'pod itself. Apple then makes the real money selling more – and bigger – iPods as people increase the size of their collections.

But the capacity of flash chips is growing much faster than the length of peoples' play lists. Filling the largest iPods takes more than music.

Steve Jobs always used to say he disliked the idea of a video iPod. I agree. It really is silly. But it is sexy, and Apple is all about the sexy. Macho geeks need to show off. And Apple needs to create a need for higher capacity iPods. The video iPod was born.

What does all of this have to do with the price of flash?

Well, Apple has so successfully stoked demand for flash that production capacity is going through the ceiling and prices are plunging towards the floor.

And while there is much to be said about Apple pushing video content providers into the internet age, I expect the cachet of watching video on the tiny screen of an iPod will be short-lived. It won't die tomorrow. Maybe not even next year. But it will die.

And when it dies, the earth will flood.

The market will be awash in 2GB, 4GB, even 16GB flash chips. They will show up in frivolous and unexpected places. Cell phones that record hours worth of video? Check. Whimsical children's toys with more memory than common sense? Check. Hybrid and fully flash-based hard drives?

Check. And check.

I'm not being especially clever in this prognostication. The CEO of Samsung, a giant in flash manufacturing (among other things), has said he expects upcoming flash chips to make hard-disk drives “obsolete”.

Even Microsoft seems to see the handwriting on the wall. Their upcoming Vista operating system is supposed to able to use the memory in a standard USB 'keychain' flash drive to store core system files. That means that even a 'small' 2GB drive can speed things up if you have it plugged in. Cool!

It's not quite the gift I'm looking for, Santa, but it's a start.


Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

Awesome analysis, Mitch. And I love this series of yours!

5:56 PM  
Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

Also of interest - VR swords especially caught my attention!:


9:11 PM  

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