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STORAGE: Data - A consuming passion

STORAGE: Data - A consuming passion

The consumer storage market is said to be growing at the rate of 150 per cent per year, with the industry brimming with forays into new areas such as optical and digital storage. At a time when consumer confidence is low and spending for computers and peripherals is in doubt, how has the consumer storage market managed to buck the trend and sustain growth?

In part, the answer lies in data growth. The increased availability and affordability of a high-speed broadband Internet connection in the home has brought with it an enriched Internet experience. Audio, video, animations and a bevy of multimedia tasks have made e-mail, the World Wide Web and many daily applications a lot more complex and enticing. The larger volume of Internet traffic and the increased file sizes of shared data have created a demand for consumer storage options, particularly with removable media.

PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

The days when a trusty old 3.5-inch, 1.44MB floppy disk could be relied upon to hold your latest project are almost certainly gone, replaced by various - and primarily proprietary - storage systems. Today, optional solutions include Sony and Fuji Photo Film's 200MB drive and disks, Caleb Technology's 144MB alternative, or the common 100MB and 250MB Iomega Zip drives. Even Imation's 120MB LS-120 SuperDisk drives are used in popular high-end notebooks. All but the Zip drives are backwards compatible, meaning they can still read the old (3.5-inch) floppy disks.

A crucial success factor of any new storage technology is its adoption as a standard. Apart from capacity itself, backwards compatibility is a key feature in achieving this. Standards are formed with the agreement by several manufacturers on common specifications such as formats and capacities, something that will help establish critical mass.

Vendors have also identified other traits that define the ideal removable storage device. Peter Atton, Iomega marketing manager, Australia and New Zealand, singles out "ease of connectivity, ease of operation". And not only that, the drive's appearance is also very important. "It has to be aesthetically appealing," he says. "The square box is definitely gone; colours and shapes are important."

THE BURNING QUESTION

With made-to-order PCs there is often the option of bundling a CD-RW or similar drive in place of the standard CD-ROM drive. CD-R and CD-RW drives have become the new standard for removable storage. The blank CD on which the data is being recorded is relatively inexpensive in terms of device and media cost per megabyte of storage. However, due to a reduced confidence in the economic climate, consumers are not making decisions to upgrade based on improved transfer speeds and capacities alone.

Nevertheless, there is always plenty of interest in "the next big thing". One thing on the horizon is car players that read CD-RW discs. These will play the music (often downloaded over the Internet) that is now commonly burned onto CDs.

As in the case of CD-RW, manufacturers are looking at consumers to be the driving market force behind recordable DVD technology. Unfortunately initial incompatibility issues tarnished the take up of DVD-RAM devices (developed by Hitachi and Panasonic), and businesses have shown little enthusiasm for their use in backups.

"DVD-RAM is dead in the water," says Gordon Kerr, Sony Australia's product manager for data storage. "The figures from a marketing perspective show the format has failed to take off. It doesn't offer the cross-compatibility that people want and expect. It's rather cumbersome to use and there are better alternatives appearing, such as DVD-R, DVD-RW [from Pioneer] and DVD+RW [from Sony, Hewlett-Packard and Philips]."

Sony also has a new product hoping to bridge the divide between CD-RWs (up to 700MB capacity) and DVD (4.7GB). Called DD-R and DD-RW, the double density CD-R and CD-RW drives can hold 1.3GB of data.

"The market trend for CD burners is becoming very ‘consumer', where once upon a time it was very ‘enthusiast'," says Kerr. "While there's been big growth in SD [Secure Digital] and Memory Stick-style products, they are still quite expensive. There's a huge growth area where people are buying digital cameras and MP3 players and we're coming into broadband with lots of information going back and forth in cheap, stable, inexpensive media."

Kerr says he has seen research that confirms this growth: "Sixty per cent compound growth [in CD recordable sales] has been going for two years and is expected to go for at least another 12 months, after which it will start to be affected by DVD. At the moment, the DVD recordable market is still toup but is starting to show signs of life.

"The other area of growth [although less consumer-orientated]," he says, "is the higher capacity tape market." Formats such as AIT [Advance Intelligent Tape] grew by 100 per cent last year and are expected to do the same or higher in the next 12 months.

"The market is going in three directions. For the home consumer and small storage [true replacement of a floppy disk], things are going towards static memory - like the Memory Stick. The next level is the business user or those who share with friends and others - this is going CD-RW . . . and you'll see it going DVD+RW. Businesses are going high-capacity tape storage."

Those contacted for this article generally favour the notion that recordable DVD systems will be the next wave to hit. At least marketing departments agree: a recent Philips press release announcing plans to launch the first DVD-video recorder, the DVDR1000 (based on DVD+RW technology), predicted the demise of the humble VCR within three years. That soon-to-be-released recorder is slated to have a RRP of about $6,599.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Storage devices that are copy protection-enabled appears to be another trend being backed by entertainment industry dollars. The influence of the entertainment industry on storage devices seems set to continue to grow as such devices are increasingly geared for use with recreational devices. With the Internet helping to facilitate breach of copyright on scales never before seen, solutions such as the 4C entity's technology for hard drives - CPRM (Content Protection for Recordable Media) are starting to emerge. CPRM adds the ability for copy protection directly to the storage device hardware.

Although a vote to standardise copy protection in storage hardware was recently lost, CPRM, already used for audio on DVDs, has not been prevented from renewing its licences. Digital rights management and content protection systems standards will help define the direction that applicable consumer storage devices take. Everything from MP3 players to the humble computer hard disk may be affected. In addition, Microsoft is pushing digital rights management in the upcoming Windows XP by allowing its Media Player software to stop unauthorised copying.

DIFFERENT MEDIA

The wide acceptance of copyrighting means there are big bucks at stake. This has, in part, helped foster the myriad of proprietary storage devices currently on the market. Earlier this year, Iomega threw its support behind Compact Flash and SmartMedia, introducing product lines for the two. Digital cameras have appeared that use everything from SD-RAM, Compact Flash, SmartMedia, CD-Rs and 40MB Clik! disks, to Sony's now open-format Memory Stick. There are also Smart Cards which when used in conjunction with mobile phones on 3G networks, can function as smart card terminals for personal banking or customer loyalty programs. Flash memory is another competitor, although more costly and limited in capacity.

Hard disks will soon be popping up in all sorts of consumer products as they become more shockproof, cooler, quieter and less expensive. Microsoft's forthcoming entry into the game console market will feature a hard disk. IBM's 340MB removable micro drive has already been incorporated into some MP3 players over flash memory. IBM also integrates its 1GB micro drive in its notebooks. Overseas, Toshiba is aiming a 2GB PCMCIA card storage alternative for notebook users.

It is clear the market needs to consolidate storage methods, with an affordable pricing time line for retailers and consumers. Although recordable DVD technology seems set to take off, in the end, critical mass will determine which format succeeds.


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