Hitachi Microdrive Feels Heat from Flash

Flash-memory storage is undercutting the prices of Hitachi's technology; can the company get higher-capacity versions to market in time?

SAN JOSE, Calif.—Falling flash prices are currently threatening Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Microdrive, and the company will need to hustle out a higher-capacity model to keep it in the market, an analyst warned attendees in a presentation at this weeks DiskCON show here.

"I said to myself, I can buy a 1GB CompactFlash card for $209.99 when a (1GB) Microdrive sells for $239—why should I buy a Microdrive? " said IDC analyst Dave Reinsel at DiskCON, the annual trade show for the disk-drive industry.

These small drives are currently most prevalent in the digital photography market. However, analysts at the conference predicted that they will make new inroads in enterprise and consumer applications, such as digital-video security monitoring; automotive computing applications; and familiar business products, such as printers.

In the late summer, prices for 1GB CompactFlash cards dropped to a new low point, underselling the 1GB Microdrive. San Jose, Calif.-based Hitachi has announced 2GB and 4GB versions of the 1-inch magnetic disk drive, but they arent expected to arrive on store shelves until at least November.

Flash-memory and rotating-disk storage have rarely competed in the marketplace, even in notebook PCs. But the depth and breadth of mobile devices has allowed flash memory to challenge the areal density increases achieved by disk storage companies such as Hitachi as well as Seagate Technology and Komag Corp.

Digital camera suppliers typically bundle small flash cards with their cameras, leaving it to the consumer to purchase an additional card that can store a large number of high-resolution photos. When the 1GB Microdrive was introduced in late 2000, its creator, IBM, said that the drive would offer far more storage than the competing flash cards of the time. IBM later transferred the Microdrive to Hitachi as part of a merger of assets that will see IBM essentially exit the disk storage business over the next three years. The merger was announced in June 2002 and officially completed earlier this year.

Today, however, the Microdrives advantages have narrowed, hiding themselves on spec sheets. When a customer visits Dell Inc.s Web site to purchase a storage upgrade for a digital camera, he can choose either a 1GB SanDisk CompactFlash card for $224.96 or a 1GB MicroDrive for $341.96. Only if the customer digs further will he find that the Microdrive transmits data at about 13.3MB per second, while the CompactFlash cards data transfer rate is less than 2.8MB per second.

Meanwhile, SanDisk announced its UltraII CompactFlash card at the end of August, which boasts a write speed of 9MB per second and a read speed of 10MB per second. A 1GB card will cost about $429.99, and will be available at the end of September, according to SanDisk.

"If you look at a given application, some portable devices like digital cameras ... didnt have enough capacity," said John Best, Hitachi Global Storage chief technologist, in an interview. "A Microdrive offered the cheapest solution to store a few hundred pictures."

But with flash prices dropping, a higher-capacity Microdrive will appeal primarily to customers who can take full advantage of its storage capabilities—say, with a large number of high-resolution images. "Its a moving target," Best acknowledged.

Next page: Will new Microdrives arrive in time?