New Uses for Flash
The general public today is aware of flash in the aforementioned thumb or pen drives, iPod Nanos (and their competitors), and in SanDisk cards for digital cameras. But flash also is used in many less conspicuous places. Microsoft's upcoming Vista operating system, for example, draws on two flash-driven features, ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive. Intel's 4GB Robson flash chip set will run the system's startup and BIOS, in order to speed up the startup and save wear and tear on the hard drive-not unlike an electric/internal combustion-powered hybrid automobile.Some of these flash memory architectures will be installed on the logic boards of Intel-based Macintosh and Linux systems in 2007, as well as on forthcoming "hybrid" hard drives that incorporate large flash caches alongside their rotating platters. Migo OEMs its flash memory software to Kingston Technology, SanDisk and other media makers. Migo copies an entire desktop-including Outlook e-mail data, browser bookmarks and desktop settings-and then displays that desktop when you plug the flash unit into someone else's computer. After you finish your work and unplug the Migo-powered flash unit, the host computer returns to normal-and retains no record whatsoever of the Migo takeover. The drives range in price from $29 to $99 and in capacity from 512MB to 4GB, Migo founder and president Elliot said. "I can carry everything I need-all my business docs, my e-mail, all my Windows preferences-everything, in my little 64MB drive," Elliot said. "I just borrow someone's computer for a few minutes wherever I go-a friend's, business associate's, a copy center's-do what I need to do, then leave the computer completely untouched. Nothing [is] left on the computer whatsoever; it's like I wasn't even there." There are other products similar to Migo on store shelves. MobiKey, made by Toronto-based Route1, is a computing device on a smart-card-enabled USB flash drive that connects a user to a remote desktop-one at home or in an office, for example-when the user plugs into another computer. It costs about $400. U3, a Redwood City, Calif., company that specializes in augmenting what flash drives can do, lists a variety of USB plug-ins using its technology in different ways on its Web site. U3's smart drive plugs into any Windows 2000 or XP machine and allows a user to work, play a game, sent instant messages or e-mail, edit photos and more, all without worrying about whether those applications are installed on the computer. Kingston 2GB U3 smart drives retail for $51.99. The drive also works with iPods and memory cards, like the ones used in digital cameras. The user can back up the files on the flash drive or burn them to a CD. Portable flash drives do require the use of another computer to bring them to life, however. Wheres flash headed next? Industry experts have different takes on where flash might be going next, but they all marvel about where its been lately. "I'm guilty of being really way off on my forecasts for the flash memory market a few years ago," Jim Cantore, president of JLC Associates, a consultancy in San Jose, Calif., said with a wry laugh. "But then again, I didn't know the flash iPod was going to hit the market, either." Msystems, based in Kfar Saba, Israel, has developed a method for adding 4 bits of data per cell on nearly the same die size as 2 bits-effectively doubling the capacity of a NAND chip. Msystems CEO Dov Moran, whose company was acquired by SanDisk on July 31, told eWEEK that there are specific products in which flash is clearly capable of replacing HDD-in most instances. "When requirements are for low capacity (as in application of industrial market, point-of-sale, medical instrumentation and any specific-function-dedicated computer), flash can replace HDD or, if not today, then at some time will replace HDD," Moran said. "In notebooks, we will see flash replacing HDD due to better reliability, power dissipation and performance. The proportion of notebooks with flash memory versus notebooks with HDD will grow from 0/100 [today] to 60/40 in several years." Moran said he sees increasing use of flash in MP3 players, geopositioning systems, digital cameras and digital video cameras, and "most importantly, cellular phones, where flash will serve for all those usages and will become a major part of the phone," he said. Migo's Elliot, who was one of Steve Jobs' right-hand men at Apple in the '80s and '90s, also said he believes that flash is still in its infancy and is only going to become more capacious and more pervasive. "This really is an important new technology, for a lot of reasons," Elliot told eWEEK. "Power usage is a big factor. Flash uses only a fraction of the power a hard drive needs. Reliability is another factor: no moving parts! We'll continue to see improvement in capacities, too, as fabrication methods continue to improve." Elliot predicted that in the future, people wont store all their data in one place, like a desktop or laptop computer; rather, he said, people will be storing information in different places, such as telephones, portable flash drives, watches or other handheld devices. Users need to have their data spread all over the place, and they'll be able to get to it quickly when they need it, he said. "Remember when a 1GB hard drive was finally on the market?" Elliot asked. "They were very expensive at first, but now look at how the prices have come down. Same thing will happen with flash; well see capacities continue to grow, and as a result, well see flash everywhere." 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At the Flash Memory Summit, representatives from both Microsoft and Intel outlined the technological reason for the use of flash in forthcoming notebook and desktop systems as well as going into further detail about the requirements of the flash architectures.