No bigger than a book of matches, a gigabyte of memory attaches to the back of my Pocket PC. It's pretty cool, especially remembering that NASA's first moon-launch computers didn't use a gig of memory, and that the storage units for their memory took up floors of buildings.
In terms of applications and content, this small microdrive represents a quantum leap for PDAs - like the first amphibious newt suddenly gaining a prehensile flipper. With an added gig of storage, PDAs can become true computing devices for a range of the extended memory applications - that to this point have only available for PCs - like MP3 libraries, image libraries, movies, games, graphic eBooks, and extended email capabilities.
For PDAs the improvement is enormous. Compaq's iPAQ 3670 is available with 64MB of memory and Palm's line of PDAs starts with 8MB, expandable to 64MB. Flash cards, the solid-state memory competition, may download information faster, but the 64MB these cards offer is not comparable to the titanic 1000MB microdrives hold.
Flash cards offer the most serious competition to the microdrive. Their price is cheaper and retrieval is instantaneous. On September 10th IBM announced that they were reducing prices of their microdrives by up to 32%, with the 1 gig model costing $379.
They're usually still more expensive than the PDA they attach to, making the combination of high-end PDA and microdrive as expensive as a basic desktop. If a PDA is used for a simple planner, then adding 64MB through a flashcard - costing less than a dollar per megabyte - makes more sense. If the PDA is being used as mobile PC, then the microdrive makes more sense.
In terms of speed, the microdrive is a disk drive (if only an inch across) so it does take roughly a second to start spinning - not a substantial time lag for saving or retrieving information.
A full-length movie or thousands of digital pictures
Who are these drives aimed at? John Osterhout, World Wide Marketing Director for IBM's Microdrives, says a microdrive offers enriched entertainment value and added communications capabilities to the businessperson.
"Content has probably the biggest and most universal appeal of the drive," he says. "But it also offers added email utility and the ability to download files. My last six months of email are stored on my PC, and that took a gig of memory."
Certainly the microdrive now blurs the line between a PDA and a laptop for the corporate executive. As Microsoft officially launches Pocket PC 2002 today, look for their operating system to eat up more of the memory and push the user to purchase added memory.
The microdrive supports multiple data types including video, MP3, text, JPEG, and voice, and can hold thousands standard digital photographs, a full-length movie, a thousand 200-page novels or nearly 18 hours of high-quality digital audio music. IBM's Frontier Lab introduced the NEX II, simply a microdrive added to an MP3 player, allowing 17 hours of music and over 200 individual songs.
Do you actually need a gig?
Still, the microdrive's marketers need to answer a fundamental question: Do you actually need a gig of memory? What current applications can take advantage of all that space?
Sophisticated sales force automatons need large amounts of storage, as do insurance companies. "Pfizer is deploying iPAQs to all their sales force people," says Richard Paxton, Product Manager for North America for Compaq's iPAQ division. "And their concern is needing the extra storage."
In terms of consumer uses, IBM in the process of offering various full-length feature films onto microdrives. Richard Paxton of Compaq explains that it is surprisingly pleasant to watch an iPAQ-sized movie during business travel. "I've done it and it's amazingly good. I rented the "Usual Suspects" and thought the quality was excellent. I watched it during a flight about a month ago, from take-off to landing."
Other sectors of the consumer market are beginning to sell applications. Sierra Imaging sells a digital camera to work in conjunction with an iPAQ and a microdrive. And Handango offers games through their website.
Although these games are still basic (Tetris, chess, casino games), the processing power that the Pocket PCs offer combined with the capacity of the microdrive makes them are an ideal platform for even the most sophisticated 3-D battles. Watch this market develop faster than the handheld game market.
Although Compaq has announced no MP3 partnerships to take advantage of the increased memory, it should be noted that one CD takes up 60-70MB. The microdrive is a must for every music aficionado.
The future of storage
In the near future, Compaq and IBM will be offering microdrives through sales "packages." Already there is a mobility package that includes a portable keyboard, another package with a digital camera for imaging, and another mobile multimedia package that includes up to eight movies on microdrives.
Will we see microdrives built in to PDAs or even handheld phones in two years from now? Will we see the drives rolled up like a stack of quarters, offering ten or twenty gigabytes of memory? There are already industry rumors that a five-gigabyte version is in the works.
Here IBM and Compaq's predictions conflict. Richard Paxton of Compaq says, "It is a safe assumption to see these drives merge into a hard drive implementation in the iPAQ." Although he did qualify his prediction by adding, "That is a speculation right now. There are no announced plans."
John Osterhout of IBM argues that the current cost of microdrives makes that "prohibitive." His point is a good one. Even though microdrives have been roughly halving their price each year since their introduction in 1999, a row of ten microdrives today would cost close to $4000 dollars. In a year from now that will be $2000, a year later $1000.
Maybe after three years microdrives will be reasonably priced for the mobile market. On that most basic level, that of price, microdrives will most likely find themselves in a niche market of high-priced accessories for now.
Adding microdrives to a mobile phone does not look possible from a cost perspective either. John Osterhout of IBM says handheld manufacturers have the same pressure to offer low prices. "Market dynamics don't support that. Right now the market is extremely price competitive," he says. "Companies are offering devices at the lowest cost possible and then the consumer can choose the amount of memory they need. This is not a bad thing. The microdrive is true removable storage. If the PDA you have today requires double the memory a year from now, you can just switch a card."
Capacity or price?
The possibilities for adding storage capabilities in the future seem almost limitless. As of IBM's May 2001 announcement, IBM's antiferromagnetically coupled coating on hard disks can quadruple their density. IBM says they can put 100 gigabytes of storage per square inch - similar in size to the.
Personal computers demands for added memory have grown exponentially - something that will probably hold true for PDAs as well. If the microdrive's biggest drawback is price, then solid-state flash card's biggest drawback is their capacity.
Just remember, one of the first personal computers, the early Apple II, that had 64k. The Sinclair1X had only 1k of memory. If you picture a graph of the current price and storage demands, flash cards have the advantage now, but as price drops and memory needs increase, microdrives might make an ideal solution.
C.J. Kennedy is currently the senior staff writer for Unstrung.com, and has covered the mobile industry for M-Business Magazine, The Wireless Developer Network, Wireless Business & Technology, Wireless Related, and The Industry Standard.