Battle line drawn between hard drives and flash memory

Bill Watkins, CEO, Seagate Technology didn’t use to have creases on his forehead till a few months ago. But now they are well discernible. Reason: Apple has replaced four gigabytes disc drive used in its iPod Mini portable music players with flash memory chips in its latest popular iPod Nano. Seagate Technology has been the major supplier of iPod Mini’s disc drive and naturally with Apple switching over to memory chips, Watkins is not a very happy man today.

This case incidentally also symbolizes that classic battle line which has now been drawn between the time tested hard drives and the recently developed flash memory chips. There are many who believe that the latter has the potential to minimize the usage of the former if not completely replace it in all devices.

No doubt, the manufacturers of flash memory chips are smiling a bit more these days. Jon Kang, Senior Vice-President of Samsung Semiconductor says, ”We’ve been doubling the density every year for the last six years now.”

Memory chip manufacturers have a spring in their feet these days because they are envisaging big days ahead for these chips and counting primarily on the fact that they mean greater storage capacity at a lower price. They are all-electronic devices, need very little battery back up and can be moved around. Disk drives on the other hand are mechanical devices, consume a good amount of electrical power and are susceptible to shock damage, and eventually wear out. This round goes to memory chips but does it mean that going beyond portable music players, they would also replace hard drives in major devices like laptops?

Not many agree to this proposition. Pointing out to some of the flip points of flash chips like they also wear out and they are slow, many experts believe that hard drives will continue to enjoy their prime position in devices like laptops.

A crucial development in this regard could be the development of a lightweight laptop with no hard drive, Samsung has been eagerly talking about this the last few months. If Samsung manages to come out with a laptop being run on 16-gigabit flash chips, that will be another interesting twist to the disk drive vs. memory chips battle.

Meanwhile, going by the present general view which veer around the middle path theory, both hard drive and memory chip will continue to co-exist with their own specific niche values. But the fast pace of technology has often turned conventional wisdom upside down and only time will tell whether the battle line between disk drive and memory chip thickens further or paves the way for a peaceful co-existence.


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