In a recent interview, Seagate Technology CEO Bill Watkins offered a reality check on the state of the computing today and the storage market. Sorry to say, this hard drive maker—along with so many others in the industry—sounds as if hes lost his way.
In a Nov. 30 Fortune interview, Watkins assessed the storage market and by extension, the rest of the computing industry.
“Lets face it, were not changing the world. Were building a product that helps people buy more crap—and watch porn,” he said.
Come on! What kind of vision statement is that? Besides, I thought you were changing the world.
After all, the world—meaning all the users in the enterprise, in businesses large and small, and in the consumer market—is dealing with the transition from analog workflows to digital ones. (Yes, there was life before digital computing, so I hear.)
Our computing devices, the IP communications that tie it all together, the tools that make it happen and the software applications that connect the content to the user, these arent some remembrance of the past. The digital changeover is still an ongoing process.
Moreover, none of this happens without the drives that Seagate and other manufacturers make. Storage is one of the foundations of the infrastructure that let business become more successful and competitive. Or that let consumers and professionals create content and extend their creative reach.
Isnt the reliability, performance and capacity of this storage foundation the real vision for a technology company? Bill Watkins: Isnt this what its really all about?
Before anyone gets bent out of shape, Im not arguing with his thesis: Internet pornography is a major end-user application for storage. And people increasingly buy things on the Web.
According to some statistics, Internet porn has annual revenues of $2.5 billion.
However, during the late November judicial review of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, a government-sponsored study said that only 1 percent of Web pages were porn. That sounds low, but perhaps our perception is shaped by all the porn e-mails weve received over the years. Or maybe theres been some consolidation in the porn biz—hey, I wouldnt know!
Still, that research appears to have overlooked P2P file downloads. An October Ipoque study of the German broadband market showed that 30 percent of daytime traffic and 70 percent of the nighttime IP traffic was devoted to P2P apps, and a hunk of that “sharing” was porn-related.
(In the Thanks for Small Favors Dept., a survey by security vendor Ipswitch showed that while 70 percent of e-mail is now spam—a figure that seems low to me based on my mailboxes—most of the spam is focused on medication and financial phishing attacks. Porn spam fell to 14 percent.)
Watkins is also right that people are buying stuff with their computers. Spending is rising year to year, up some 24 percent in November.
But should it matter what users do with their hardware, other than for system and component makers to understand their customers needs and then make better products and create technology tuned for that purpose? Porn, buying shoes, posting pictures of the pets. Whatever. Crap is in the eye of the beholder.
But did Watkins really believe what he said? I dont think so. That flip attitude isnt reflected in Seagate products, nor from anyone Ive had with dealings with over the years. The company is the market leader, after all.
Still, it is another reflection of the tough time the storage industry is having melding its products with customer-centric design and innovation.
Innovation in Storage
At several storage conferences this fall, analysts raised a warning flag to manufacturers that consumer products could need more reliability and more engineering than their traditional enterprise customers, who have a more realistic understanding of how storage can go wrong. The analysts mentioned that consumer market expectations for performance and reliability may be out of alignment with the current state of HDD technology.
At the same time, enterprise customers seek greater performance, security and energy-savings from their storage purchases.
Has the storage industry solved these basic issues for users? Nope. Progress is incremental, which is another way of saying “slow.”
Part of the problem, as I pointed out in a past column, is that the one note of the storage industry R&D is pitched towards raising the aereal density of hard drives (or flash).
At the International Disk Drive Equipment and Materials Associations annual Diskcon conference in Santa Clara, Calif., storage technology consultant Charles Sobey called for the industry to “break the tyranny” of aereal density and seek a wider range of improvements to fundamental storage products.
What were some of his suggestions? Here were a few:
- How about a drive that can last at least 50 years? Thats the minimum time paper records can hold its data.
- Storage systems that ensure retention of data and its access in the future. This also involves the engineering of disk formats and file standards for the long term.
- Hard disk storage that supports alternative energy sources.
Simplicity. Again, that user-centric design is tough.
“The long term future of our data is uncertain and where theres uncertainty, theres a business opportunity. We need to plan for our digital legacy,” Sobey said.
Let me be clear: The issue isnt whether or not that storage manufacturers should make hard disks that can pack more bits of data on a platter. Some readers flamed me on that when I suggested that not all users need the ever-expanding HDD.
The concern now is that many other important storage technology areas are off the radar. And Watkins flip comment suggests that they will remain so.