Notebook: Scaled-Down Diskcon Centers on CE

By Mark Hachman  |  Posted 2004-09-23

Notebook: Scaled-Down Diskcon Centers on CE

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—The Diskcon show here was all about small: small devices, small attendance, small profits.

Changes in this industry arrive slowly, and some attendees grumbled that its time to starting holding the show once every two years instead. Last year, the show was held in the San Jose Fairmont and Convention Center, and the layout of the rooms at least gave the show a semblance of life.

The relatively small Santa Clara Convention Center seemed positively cavernous compared with the size of the show, and the organizers roped off several sections of the auditorium to try to compress the crowd.

The exceptions were the panels on consumer electronics and small-form-factor storage, which actually generated some excitement. Note that the CE and SFF boom occurred last year, but the current relapse into cutthroat pricing practices has triggered a relapse of the red-ink flu that the industry has typically suffered from.

Analysts at Diskcon said the disk drive industry is now ripe for mergers. Click here to read more.

One of the more interesting presentations was by Kenji Taima, senior research manager at Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. and a member of the iVDR Consortium, which is an industrywide project to embed removable hard drives in a number of consumer devices.

Its unclear whether a company-agnostic specification will actually succeed in a world dominated by proprietary formats—such as the small-form-factor flash market, for example—but the technology is already available from one supplier, even if no CE maker has designed a bay for it yet.

Taima said the consortium has tentatively added an iVDR "micro" to house a 1-inch drive, in addition to the 1.8-inch and 2.5-inch iVDRs the consortium has already approved. Content-protection mechanisms have already been approved.

The addition of the micro iVDR is an "experiment," Taima said. Although Taima did not offer a timetable for broad adoption of the iVDR standard, the consortium has grown from eight to 57 companies. Even if the iVDR standard is not adopted, its likely that manufacturers of televisions will embed hard drives within the chassis.

And even if the television makers dont design in full PVR functionality, its likely that users will have the option of pausing live TV and perhaps rewinding a broadcast to the beginning, said David Barron, product-line director of digital entertainment at Maxtor Corp.

Next Page: Has Apple signed on to use the CE-ATA interface?

Apple and CE

-ATA"> Meanwhile, the word from sources close to Apple Computer Inc. is that the company has signed on to use the CE-ATA interface recently announced at the Intel Developer Forum. Although Apples involvement couldnt be confirmed at the IDF, several sources now say the company has signed on, but that its blocking its name from being added to official lists for fears that the public might ask embarrassing questions about redesigning the iPod. So far, no redesign is necessary, storage vendors said, as the CE-ATA spec is "a list of goals, not specifications," one source said.

The problem is that small-form-factor drive vendors arent just competing with one another, theyre also taking on Gordon Moores famous law and the flash industry. For all of the advances in drive technology, the pace of areal density is slowing, as drive makers have been unable to jump to the next iteration: perpendicular recording.

Makers of flash memory, for all of their own fits and starts, have already begun to take business away from the hard-disk vendors. A quick search already reveals that 2-Gbyte USB memory keys are selling for less than the price of a 2-Gbyte Hitachi Microdrive.

Flash normally wins when its pricing can compete directly with that of hard drives, as solid-state media consume less power than rotating hard drives, said John Osterhout, director of business development in the emerging markets business unit of Hitachi GST.

"Power is clearly a driver for us," said Rob Scott, a so-called "tech scout" for cell-phone maker Nokia. Another key driver is the ability to withstand a fall, known as shock tolerance. "When people drop their digital camera, they expect it to be broken," Scott said. "When people drop their mobile phone, they expect it to [work]."

Oh, and forget about DRM, too. Device makers may be forced to adopt it, but theyre not happy about the prospect of having a song work on a PC or other device but not on the mobile phone that theyre taking with them on the way to a family reunion.

Samsung has already announced a mobile phone based on a hard drive, beating Nokia to market. Shortly after the phone announcement, however, the companys semiconductor division announced that it was lowering prices on flash memory.

Fortunately for the hard-drive industry, a hard-drive-equipped phone doesnt suffer the same sort of vibration that can vibrate a PC chassis, Scott told me. But thats of little concern to the hard-drive industry, which is always facing a shaky future.

If theres one point that Diskcon made clearly, its that its all about the data.

An hour into the show, some jerk walked off with my beloved IBM ThinkPad as I stood waiting to interview a panelist just 10 feet away. I could care less about losing the Wi-Fi access (although Kinkos is charging a pretty penny for the privilege of writing this), the CPU, the operating system, etc. But losing several weeks of data from conferences and the like… Yes, I know I should perform more frequent backups. And gone as well is my e-book for the flight home! Damn!

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