Digital World: Showdown at the OK storage bay

Personally, I like flash memory, as all patriotic Israelis should.

By DAVID SHAMAH
July 25, 2006 13:49

 
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To hear the "flash fans" tell it, you'd think that manufacturers of hard drives are (or soon will be) on the verge of bankruptcy. New and better flash memory drives are being developed and released daily, it seems, and each subsequent release features larger memory capacity and ever-faster transfer rates, setting flash up as ideal for "the next big thing" - which is, of course, highspeed wired and wireless video transfer (to be honest, Internet video has been the next big thing for a long time, and it probably still will be quite a while before you're able to watch TV on your flash drive-equipped cell phone). Personally, I like flash memory, as all patriotic Israelis should - after all, the USB flash drive was invented by an Israeli company (M-Systems), and another Israeli-run company (SanDisk) more or less sets the standards for the industry besides holding the lion's share of the flash drive market (more than half overall). Besides, those little USB drives and flash MP3 players are so cute - a lot sleeker looking than those old-fashioned, hard-drive based iPods (except, of course, for the flash memory-based iPod Nano). Highcapacity iPods still dominate MP3 player sales but that market is changing rapidly, as well, with flash memory players gaining ground (tinyurl.com/kwv2x). Why do you think Apple came out with the Nano, anyway? Of course, flash memory has, more or less, made the takeover of the camera market by digital photography (tinyurl.com/82wnq) possible, by offering consumers an easy, standardized way to store and transfer photos from camera to computer to CD/DVD/Web site, etc. And don't forget the inroads flash memory has made in the cell phone market (tinyurl.com/knkj3), as consumers demand more memory for music, games and messages in ever-slimmer and smaller phones. Not that I, or anyone, is ready to write an obituary for the soon to be deceased (if you believe the hype, that is) hard drive, but more manufacturers are equipping their dedicated devices (like MP3 and MP4 players) with the technology, in lieu of the traditional hard drive. And, sooner or later, the flash people are going to start coming out with flash storage systems at a cost (like a penny or less per megabyte) and size (maybe 60-80 gb) that will make it worthwhile for computer manufacturers to redesign their PCs to accommodate a removable flash memory drive as the primary, and maybe lone data storage system supported by new models. Yes, they have a ways to go - the biggest USB flash memory currently available is 16 GB (tinyurl.com/ zynnk), and while hard drives are still cheaper per gigabyte (www.storagesearch.com/semico-art1.html), it appears to be just a matter of time before the computing world embraces the promise of huge storage in a tiny portable package offered by flash memory drives - not to mention the "solid stateness" of the technology, which has no moving parts, as opposed to the click and whirl (and eventual death) of HDDs. But wouldn't you know it - the ol' hard drive still has some life in it and, like a cat with nine lives, it's come back yet again as the storage choice of Microsoft's "iPod killer," the Zune, set to be launched in time for this year's "gifting season," which starts off with a bang the day after Thanksgiving in the US. The Zune line will include several different configurations (tinyurl.com/ mto73) some of which will include Wi-Fi capability (sort of like the iPod Nike Edition, www.apple.com/ ipod/nike/, but without the sneakers), as well as the ability to play Xbox games. Whether or not Zune turns out to be an iPod killer is for the future for decide, but since the product's initial marketing strategy will be to emphasize a price advantage over the rival Apple product (i.e., Zunes will be cheaper than iPods for equivalent feature sets), the initial Zunes will probably contain the currently more economical HDDs (although the Zune Blog, zuneinsider.typepad.com/, mentions the possibility of an iPod Nano - i.e. flash - edition of Zune). After several less than successful attempts (tinyurl.com/n9khg) to unseat Apple as king of the portable music player market, one could assume that Microsoft has learned from the past and is really serious about winning this time - so the Zune announcement could be a real shot in the arm for HDD business. Microsoft is not the only company to buck the flash trend, by the way. Several other high-profile products already on the market have eschewed flash memory such as the Nokia N91 smartphone, which has a 4 GB ultra-slim hard drive (w w w. p h y s o r g . c o m / p r e - view68820124.html) another product that would like to commit iPodicide (as in killing the Apple product). And while flash memory drives are striving to reach the 20 GB milestone, 160 GB hard drives are as common as empty potato chip bags in a programmer's workspace (and don't cost too much more than a couple of cartons of said snack) and you can even pick up a 2 terabyte hard drive (tinyurl.com/dh4zm). I'm deliberately trying to stay away from an in-depth technical analysis of flash memory vs. HDD - there are plenty of those on the Web (tinyurl.com/qjrol) - and each technology has its advantages, respective boosters will tell you. Nevertheless, the eventual takeover of the storage market by flash memory drives seems likely for average everyday computer Joes once all the kinks in the flash system are worked out (ask.metafilter.com/mefi/31538); there are just too many marketing and manufacturing advantages involved, from size to versatility/portability of USB flash drives, to the lack of moving parts in flash's solid state memory. And while it would seem now that the current tech balance between HDDs and flash memory - where the latter is used for small devices like cameras and mini-music players and the former does heavy data and storage work on computers and networks - it's likely that one or more versions of flash memory (www.opticsplanet.net/memorycards.html) will sooner or later make significant inroads into the market areas where HDDs are still dominant. Not that hard drives will ever disappear altogether (or at least for a long time). A one terabyte flash drive seems highly unlikely, but new technology has a way of pushing the old out, despite cost or even performance advantages of the tried and true (an interesting analysis of this phenomenon can be seen at tinyurl.com/f5bg6). To help move things along, the USB flash drive folk got together and came up with a new marketing tack - the U3 Smart USB Drive, which lets users easily move their work around town without having to shlep a laptop around. All you have to do is plug your U3 standard USB flash drive into your PC's USB 2.0 port - and your virtual goes online allowing you to do your work your way, on your own hard drive, avoiding security stipulations that ban you from using an office desktop the way you want and allowing you to easily save data and move them between computers - all in a device that fits on a keychain! Sounds tempting, no? Well, we'll find out next time.

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