Hard Drives Off Memory Lane

Though flash has dazzled the iPod nano and cell phones, hard drives may have a thing or two in store.
Author:
Publish date:

Now that movies, music and photos are all going digital, a battle is brewing over where consumers and businesses will store all their stuff.

Traditionally, consumers have stored such files on computer hard drives, but in recent years, flash memory has been gaining ground. Based on semiconductor technology, flash memory is faster, weighs less, and requires less power than traditional hard drives.

Those advantages were demonstrated to the hilt this past year when

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

replaced its hard-drive-based iPod mini, the most popular product in its digital music player line, with the flash-based iPod nano.

With the nano, Apple offered a product that could store essentially the same number of songs in a package a fraction of the size of its predecessor.

If you ask

Samsung

, flash memory is going to continue its advance. Not only does the electronics giant see the market for flash memory continuing to grow in areas where it already competes, but the company also believes that there's a whole new market for flash in the hard-drive business's traditional home turf: PCs.

The company, which dominates the market for NAND flash, one of two flavors of the storage media, believes that a double-digit percentage of its NAND flash sales will come from PC-related sales within three to five years, Don Barnetson, associate director of flash marketing for Samsung Semiconductor, said in an interview last week at the

Consumer Electronics Show.

Barnetson sees uses for flash ranging from stand-alone drives on servers to hybrid drives in desktops that help speed boot-up times and program loading.

Flash is "50 to 500 times faster" than hard-disk drives, making it cost competitive on a price-per-performance basis, Barnetson says.

But don't expect hard-drive makers to just surrender.

Seagate Technology

(STX) - Get Report

CEO Bill Watkins concedes that hard drives have lost ground to flash memory in the MP3 market. But the market for hard drives remains robust in other consumer-electronics areas, and the market for digital music is likely to augment sales, Watkins said in a separate interview at CES.

"The battle's going to be in handhelds," Watkins says. "You have to recognize flash as a threat

there, because if you don't, you're being stupid."

As for flash's prospects in the PC world, though, "I don't see any interest at all," he says.

The growth of flash memory outside of the PC world is undeniable. In addition to being found in MP3 players, the storage media is now commonly used in cell phones and GPS devices, to store photos taken by digital cameras, and in external USB hard drives.

Barnetson estimates that 70 million flash-based MP3 players were shipped in 2005 and that the amount will grow 20% this year. Helping drive the market will be increasing capacities: while flash-based players top out at about 6GB now, by the end of the year, they should hit 8GB and eventually 20GB.

"Within five years, the vast majority

of the MP3 market will become flash," says Barnetson.

He and Samsung are in a position to know: The company controls about 60% of the NAND flash market, according to Barnetson.

But the company sees growing demand for flash in other markets, too. As flash memory becomes less expensive and holds more photos, the company believes users will treat it like film.

Barnetson says that consumers, instead of erasing their memory cards after uploading them to their computers, will just buy new cards and keep the old ones as archives.

Other potential growth areas include prerecorded Hollywood movies stored on flash memory cards that will be playable on cell phones and other portable devices, and new digital satellite radios that are able to record songs, he says.

But PCs represent perhaps the biggest new opportunity for flash, says Barnetson. Flash drives that can be plugged into server racks will be available from Samsung in the second quarter this year.

And by the third quarter, the company will be shipping hybrid drives -- hard drives that include an integrated flash chip. Such drives would allow computers to stop the spinning of the hard-drive platter, helping save battery life and speed programs, Barnetson says.

But Watkins argued that those advantages won't make up for the serious drawbacks of flash. The sizes it comes in are a fraction of those of hard drives, and flash just can't compete with hard drives in terms of price per gigabit, he says.

Even in notebooks, where, arguably flash's power advantages and speed might come in handy, Watkins sees little threat. "People are storing a lot more

data on their notebooks," he says. "I don't see a notebook application

for flash."

Although hard drives have lost ground to flash in MP3 players, the rise of digital content is driving demand for hard drives elsewhere.

Then there's the market for digital-video recorders, which represents the biggest chunk of Seagate's consumer-electronics business.

"They're going to sell a lot of flash devices," Watkins said. But he predicted that "every TV" is going to have a hard drive attached to it.

Watkins says that many of the major flash producers, including Seagate,

Toshiba

and

Hitachi

(HIT)

, are also investing heavily in hard drives.

"There's a lot of hype about flash vs. hard drives," says Watkins. But the two storage media are complementary and likely to grow rapidly, he says.

"The companies that know the most about flash are investing the most in hard drives," Watkins adds.

For the time being, then, this battle may not have a loser.