Storage vendors suffer vertical vertigo
Content industry upright on DRM
Analysis Los Angeles! New York! Paris, France! Berlin! London! Like the leaders of a pair of heavy metal rock bands pimping their new album, the big names from Seagate and Hitachi have been touring the world these past couple of weeks, touting their latest wonder - the Defeat of Superparamagnetism. (Be honest, you can imagine a vinyl LP with a Roger Dean cover and that title, can't you?)
What they've done is introduce their new perpendicular recording technology, which will overcome the problems of superparamagnetism - essentially, quantum effects randomly flipping the bits of your magnetically-stored data.
Seagate, Hitachi and Toshiba have all worked on this technology for some time, and cross-own the patents on it, according to Rob Pait, Seagate's director of consumer storage marketing. He and John Best, chief technologist for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, have been on separate, but intertwined, whistle-stop tours of the US and Europe, meeting hacks, analysts and (no doubt) potential purchasers, talking up the joys of data that stands up.
The thing about perpendicular recording is that it can stuff much, much more data onto the same space, so that you can make smaller disks which hold even more: a one-inch disk that can hold 20GB, for example, rather than the 6GB now.
Who do you sell those hard drives to, though? Enterprises are doing OK, thanks, and don't particularly need the smalll form factors that perpendicular recording enables.
So it's the consumer electronics sector that the disk makers are targeting. But, rather like nervous rock stars who see a big threat to their sales, one thing has them very edgy. It's that software thing, digital rights management (DRM). Hard drive makers don't like it.
"In 18 months everything we make will use perpendicular," said Pait. "As will other hard disk companies' products." Seagate has grand visions of progress: its forecasts, in a presentation called "Your Terabyte Life", includes a Gartner forecast showing growth in hard drive sales principally driven by consumer electronics, rising steadily from $5.3bn this calendar year to $12.1bn in 2009. Analysts predict that hard drives for consumer electronics will account for 40 per cent of all hard drive shipments by 2008, up from 9 per cent in 2003 and 15 per cent in 2004.
Hitachi too has high expectations. It prefers IDC's figures, which suggest a 15.5 per cent compound annual growth rate for the hard drive industry between 2004 and 2008. But that's a big growth too seen against the rest of the computing industry.
Forecasts like this are almost always rosy; they're what the computer and peripherals industry lives on. Back in the dot-com days, it was obvious that Sun Microsystems was this year going to be a squillion-dollar company and that all of us would own two of its servers; all you had to do was feed the numbers of previous sales and present sales into Excel, and draw the graph.
Similarly, for the new, chock-full-o'-data little perpendicular-format hard drives, the hard drive industry sees huge potential in music players, mobile phones, cars, handheld computers, personal video recorders (PVRs), and gaming.
Just think, goes the happy scenario: you'll download your songs onto your computer, put them on your MP3 player, then transfer them to your car and store and play them there (for Seagate has developed a vehicle-quality little hard drive, capable of withstanding Arctic cold and Singaporean heat and humidity, as well as vibration and shock). Gamers will store huge amounts of data and carry it around with them. We'll all be swimming in data and we'll have it with us all the time!
So journalists are frankly obliged to ask: what could get in the way of those figures working out?
Which is where the bearings start to squeak a little. "We see the biggest issues being faced by everybody as DRM," said Pait, succinctly. "I was asked this at Digital Hollywood in Los Angeles, where people involved with DRM were talking to people involved with systems."
And? "There was generally no agreement on how it's going to move forward."
That's quite a bucket of water to throw on those happy numbers. But it reflects the obstinacy of movie studios over licensing, and the tussles between companies like Apple and Microsoft over whose DRM should be used for music.
"Where consumers are frustrated, they will circumvent the system," noted Pait. "People are going to want to be able to do the same with magnetic media that they can with optical. You can take a DVD player and put it in your car."
The companies involved are looking for methods where you could have a "domain of secure content" - ie, the places which you tell your hard drive it's allowed to play its content in. Say, your house, car, kids' computers, work. But that's not quite as good as a DVD, which you can take to a friend's house on the spur of the moment, is it?
"There are huge issues involved," agreed Tait.
John Best, chief technologist at Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, agrees that "DRM is certainly an important issue for all of us in this industry," though he's more optimistic than Pait, thinking that while it will add "drag" to growth, it's "not a major obstacle". He says that "it's a question more of standards than of DRM."
But if your HD-enabled car stereo can't play the songs you downloaded to your iPod, or vice-versa, then you're not going to bother with it, are you? You'll buy the cheaper car model without it, or else complain like hell and curse all the makers you can. If your kids can't watch the film you bought legally and downloaded to your PC over your fast internet connection on their handheld computers, you might as well just get a DVD instead. And once bitten, twice shy of hard drives everywhere. In such ways do forecast revenues dribble away and flatline instead of soaring.
Yet the movie and TV studios aren't as unyielding as you might imagine. "They may be less far along than the music business, which has now got into digitisation of songs. But they recognise it's going to happen, with or without them. The question right now is how soon do you monetise it?" said Pait.
Seagate reckons that the sooner it's all sorted, the better: "then we'll have a standard that works well on lots of systems, rather than proprietary stuff that works perfectly on very few systems."
We'd say amen to that. But we'd also not hold out every hope of its happening in a hurry. The hard drive guys may have trumped the quantum world, but here they're up against something much tougher to beat: the tiny-mindedness of the content industry. You can only wish them luck. ®