IBM sees video, not PCs, driving hard-disk sales

For years the hard-disk drive market has been driven by a simple rule: users are always looking for more storage space. But a series of innovations has lead to big advances in the last couple of years that have left the market on the verge of change.

"Drives now offer almost more capacity than the average user needs," said Currie Munce, director of advanced technology at IBM Corp.'s storage systems division. He is referring to a new breed of hard-disk drive that offers capacities exceeding 100G bytes of storage space -- enough space for the files and documents of all but the greatest power users.

"People are starting to focus on performance," Munce said adding he sees a greater emphasis in the near future on measures such as the disk speed (a faster disk means data can be read and written in a shorter time and this performance can be increased) and also the physical size of the drive, especially in notebook computers where use of a 1.8-inch drive can enable manufacturers to reduce weight and computer size over today's standard 2.5-inch drives.

IBM, like other major hard-disk makers, has already begun exploring high-performance drives and has several examples in its server drive line-up. The company's Ultrastar range features a 36G-byte drive with a disk speed of 15,000 rpm and a 73G-byte drive with a disk speed of 10,000 rpm. Both are significantly faster than today's most common desktop hard disk drives which have rotational speeds of either 5,400 rpm or 7,200 rpm.

But just as PC users are beginning to look satisfied with the storage on their desktop, a new kid has entered town in the shape of video recorders that use hard-disk drives.

Popularized by the Tivo and Replay TV boxes on sale in the U.S. and some other markets, many major consumer electronics makers are now coming out with their own devices. The units work like a conventional VCR but use a hard disk to store video data. This has several advantages including the ability to instantly access anything stored anywhere on the drive, the ability to simultaneously record one show while watching a previously recorded show and an innovative function that allows users to "pause" live television.

They chomp through storage space at the rate of about 1G byte per hour and, because the drives are not removable, require a lot of storage space if users are to be kept from constantly juggling files to make room for new recordings.

"I would suggest that a 200G-byte drive would seem small when you get into digital television," said Munce. "200G bytes will be like a 2G-byte drive is today (on your computer). We will see capacities of 500G bytes when we get to digital video and data."

The market for such drives is currently small, but growing fast, according to a report released this week by market research company InStat/MDR. The company said it sees the hard disk-based video recorders jumping from 1.2 million units in 2001 to over 6 million in 2003 and revenues from sales of such recorders to jump from US$550 million to $2.3 billion in the same two year period.

"We will see lots of data in the home," predicted Munce. "It's hard to imagine in five years that most TVs won't be sold without a hard-disk drive inside and a pause button on the remote control."

IBM is not the only hard-disk drive maker with such a vision. For several years Japan's largest drive makers have been working on a new class of device: AV (audio visual) hard-disk drives. These are designed for use with multimedia files, which tend to be longer and stored as one continuous file on the drive, unlike computer data which is often in thousands of small files scattered across the disk.

As the vision of a digital home comes ever closer to reality, some companies are also looking at a removable hard-disk drive system that would enable users to be able to pull a drive from their video recorder and slot it into a personal computer or other device. In March, eight of Japan's largest electronics companies detailed their plans for just such a system.

The companies have developed a system called IVDR (Information Versatile Disk for Removable Usage). Physically, the IVDR cartridge is little more than a conventional 2.5-inch hard-disk drive in a plastic case, with a new connector. But around the system the consortium is also developing the protocols and file systems that will enable the drive to be taken in and out of devices while they are switched on and accessed by a wide number of products.

The group includes Canon Inc., Fujitsu Ltd., Hitachi Ltd., Phoenix Technologies KK, Pioneer Corp., Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd., Sharp Corp. and Victor Co. of Japan (JVC), along with support from electronics connector maker FCI Japan KK and computer peripherals maker Mitsumi Electric Co. Ltd.

IBM has also been studying the needs of such a system, which go beyond simply making the drive portable, Munce said.

"We've looked at some ideas and are looking at how you move data around," he said. "We will need security, digital-rights management and data management. Today, it is all managed by the subsystem and host operating system so if you connect a hard disk to a digital camera, it has no clue what it is. In more portable applications, the intelligence of managing the data will move around with the device."

"I may have one instance of video data and want to display it on a PDA (personal digital assistant) at first and then later on a high-definition TV so how it is to be displayed will be different," Munce said. Systems will have to have the intelligence to marry stored portable data with a variety of different devices, he said.

While IBM has been working on such technologies, nothing is ready to be announced, the researcher said.

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Martyn Williams

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