You Can Take It With You
By Kevin Werbach, Mon Feb 16 09:00:00 GMT 2004

If you want to see the future of mobile devices, go look at what's happening in storage.

Storage is one of those boring, take-it-for-granted corners of the technology world that every now and then become very, very important. The history of the personal computer is a story of storage innovations. Today's personal computers wouldn't be the same without two storage innovations: CD-ROMs and affordable multi-gigabyte hard drives. Without them there would be no way to make use of today's productivity applications, multimedia presentations, digital photos, and other content.

Storage is even more crucial for mobile devices. Because storage takes up space, it has been difficult to build handheld devices at consumer price-points with more than the bare minimum of capacity. Mobile phones have typically carried just enough ROM for some speed-dial numbers and its own operating system. They are single-function devices because there's literally no space for additional applications or content.

Mobile devices are about to become much more powerful, and storage is the reason. There have been three waves of evolution in portable storage, each of which has produced new product categories. The first development was affordable flash memory, allowing handhelds to carry hundreds of addresses and user-installed applications. That was enough to launch the PalmPilot, which created the market for personal digital assistants. The second wave was removable storage, using the Secure Digital, CompactFlash, or MemoryStick standards. Without the ability to pop data into and out of a device, we wouldn't have digital cameras. And the same basic technology, sealed into devices, powered the first generation of handheld MP3 music players. The third wave of portable storage was tiny hard drives, beginning with the 1.8 inch-wide Hitachi drives in Apple's iPod.

Every stage in portable storage so far has involved more capacity. From the kilobytes on the original Palm (text and simple applications) to the megabytes in digital cameras (still photos) to the gigabytes on an iPod (music), increased storage space has brought new forms of media into play. The next evolution will be different. With the current-generation iPods topping out at 40 gigabytes, comparable to a desktop computer, there is enough space to store just about anything. The next challenge is to make portable storage elements smaller and more affordable. Storage creates new markets when it gets cheaper, even without adding capacity. For example, USB "keychain" storage devices wouldn't be selling like crazy if they weren't available for $50 or less.

The renaissance in mobile storage is a boon for hardware vendors in this specialized market, such as Hitachi and Toshiba. And though there hasn't been a successful startup in hard disk drives in 20 years, a new player called Cornice believes it can beat the big guys with a new architecture built from the ground up for portable storage. Cornice makes tiny hard drives with component price points below $70, allowing for $200 end-user devices with over a gigabyte of storage.

Whether Cornice, one of the other microdrive vendors, or a flash memory player ultimately prevails, rapid improvements in mobile storage will make new kinds of devices possible, even inevitable.

A mobile phone with storage isn't just an interface for rich media, applications, and files located elsewhere -- it's a full-fledged computer. There will be little reason to carry a separate camera, organizer, or music player. With a few gigabytes of stage, a mobile phone becomes a multipurpose information appliance. For businesspeople, it becomes the tool for carrying Powerpoint presentations and word-processing files, rather than lugging around a laptop. For the consumer, it becomes the repository for photos, movies and music. You'll send copies of that content to a network server for backup or to share it with your friends, but you'll still carry copies with you everywhere.

The new wave of portable storage also means the doom of the consumer digital camera. The lenses and electronics in today's digital cameras are generally capable of handling video as well. The main reason still and video cameras remain a separate market is the limitations of current-generation storage. The DV tapes in digital video cameras are comparatively bulky relative to flash storage in a digital camera, but the flash storage isn't big enough to hold significant quantities of video. Once portable storage is competitive, either via flash memory or microdrives, be hard to find a digital camera that doesn't also handle video, leaving standalone digital cameras to the high-end professional market. The first wave of combination camera/video devices will come on the market this year.

We'll also see much more powerful location-based services. A two-gigabyte microdrive can hold an entire continent worth of mapping data. The phone's wireless connection would only have to come into play for telemetry and occasional updates.

These are just a few of the possibilities. Improvements in storage are both rapid and relentless. Storage is becoming cheaper and more capable even faster than processors, and we all know how Moore's Law has driven the growth of the computer industry. Projects in the lab today could make today's mobile storage look puny. For example, an IBM research project called Millipede uses micromechanical systems to burn massive numbers of tiny depressions onto a medium, supporting storage densities in the hundreds of gigabytes per square inch.

I can't wait to have something like that in my phone. I couldn't tell you what I'd use it for, but isn't that the point?