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It's official: storage is the new chips

5GB flash, 10GB microdrives announced

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As the world's largest gadget show opens in Las Vegas this week, the storage announcements will be more eagerly awaited than usual. In the past it used to be the semiconductor designers who were the physicists of IT, the scientists supreme. With good reason: not only was chip design and manufacturing immensely difficult to do well, but the capabilities of the computer were defined by raw processing power. Now it's the magnetic storage that defines the device.

Chip design hasn't suddenly got easier, of course. But try and think of a new application for the PC since Intel and AMD introduced gigahertz chips almost five years ago. On the desktop, we have cycles to spare, and don't know what to do with them. But in pure technology terms, tomorrow's devices are more dependent on breakthroughs in screen technology, batteries and storage than on CPU power.

Take for example, two of the headlines we'll hear about this week. Hitachi has shrunk its MicroDrive, the hard disk used in Apple's iPod mini, and more than doubled the capacity to 10GB and 8GB, according to early reports. Seagate, meanwhile, announced 5GB and 2.5GB solid state Compact Flash memory. Solid state storage still has many advantages over spinning disks: it's smaller, lighter, uses hardly any power, and is more likely to be working in ten years time. The iPod for everyone will almost certainly be a solid state device.

The new CF capacities will permit devices that don't play music, such as cameras and phones, to become MP3 players. Phones will begin to sport multi-gigabyte storage. The current range of options is confusing: Nokia alone has announced phones with three formats recently: MMC, the smaller RS-MMC (reduced size multimedia card) and now DVRS-MMC (dual voltage reduced size... you can figure out the rest).

Whether such new hybrids catch on is quite another issue. MP3 playback is still CPU-intensive enough to drain today's battery pretty rapidly. A badly designed 'spork' isn't a competitive threat to anyone except its original manufacturer, who risks damaging their reputation in their original field. While phones have successfully subsumed the wristwatch, it isn't clear that the cameraphone is going to do the same for the camera: most users see it as an addition rather than a camera replacement.

That said, future versions of devices similar to the Nokia 7710, smaller and thinner thanks to OLED displays and better batteries, only need perform a couple of functions reasonably well (for example, phone, GPS and music playback) to be accepted by today's iPod consumers. The phone manufacturers know it, the carriers know it, and surely Apple knows it too. While Microsoft hopes to create a new device category with its media centers, the smart money must be on a phone manufacturer striking it lucky. ®

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