Microdrive battle heats up

Microdrive battle heats up

About a year ago, I made the all-too-easy prediction that 2004 would see a boost in the sales of disk drives. That prediction proved to be accurate -- and I mention it now not to brag about it, but to note that the favorable momentum is still pushing record sales that will probably continue strongly into 2005 and beyond.

Why am I so sure? One reason is that disk drives kept a favorable cycle even though some of the new technologies that I expected to take off in 2004 didn't.

For example, 2.5-inch enterprise drives didn't make a big splash, but that's a rain check that will be likely cashed as soon as complementary technologies such as SAS (serial attached SCSI) and blade serversevolve.

Microdrives, those smaller units found in consumer electronic devices such as cameras, PDAs, portable drives, and MP3 players, are another pet segment for vendors, because they have shown (and promise to continue to show) growth percentages unattainable with other drives.

For example, in a study released in November, IDC estimated that in 2005 vendors worldwide would more than double 2004's shipments of portable multimedia players mounting microdrives. And that's only for MP3 players.

2006 promises to be even better. It's easy to understand why vendors cross swords on capacity, reliability, and size of these machines in combat that reminds me of similar past campaigns on the enterprise and desktop battlegrounds.

Recently, Hitachi announced a new entry, dubbed "Mikey," for its 1-inch drive family. Mikey, according to Hitachi, will deliver 8GB or more while shrinking in size by 20 percent and reducing power consumption by 40 percent.

In the same breath, Hitachi promised to put its 1.8-inch Travelstar drive on a diet, resulting in a new, 10-percent-smaller unit that bears the appropriate code name "Slim." Despite the smaller size and a weight of only 49 grams, Slim's capacity should come in at 30GB or more for single-platter units.

Perhaps responding to some customer concerns about the vulnerability of mobile drives recently discussed in The Storage Network blog, Mikey and Slim will be also more resilient to shocks from rough handling, according to Hitachi.

Western Digital, a vendor that carved a new space in the enterprise drive segment with a unique line of fast-performing SATA drives, is also courting the fast-growing microdrive revenues. In fact, its first 1-inch unit should ship in Q2, spinning at 3,600 RPM and delivering a respectable capacity of as much as 6GB.

What can we make of these new announcements? I don't know the cost of these new drives, but it's easy to speculate that the increased competition will lower prices, which will translate into a more affordable -- and possibly even faster-growing -- market for gizmos based on the drives.

Another possible effect is to trigger lower prices and higher capacities for flash drives, microdrives' technology rival. This is good news if moving a spinning drive has you worried about the safety of your data.

Looking further ahead, I like to imagine that the availability of large and inexpensive personal drives will inspire the building of a quintessential super-gizmo, perhaps a combination of cell phone, PDA, camcorder, laptop, MP3 player, and more where I can store and retrieve a lifetime of music, images, and personal information, including copies of my medical records (why not?).

Imagine being in the emergency room and pulling up your last chest x-ray on the spot for your doctors. Or imagine calling up the photo taken in April at Waikiki with your significant other when you run into a friend on the street. Wouldn't a similar device be a blessing in anybody's life? If microdrives can help us live better and longer, I'm all for them. What about you?

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