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Crave Talk: How flash will destroy optical and magnetic storage

The future is made dangerous for optical media by flash storage, but hard disks could also be vanquished. We examine how flash memory and on-demand media are set to usher in a new technological paradigm

Will the hard disk be made useless after it's forced to help flash memory destroy optical media?

As flash encroaches on more of optical media's territory, I see it teaming up with hard disk drives to make on-demand the dominant method of distribution. I think we may see flash memory destroying hard disks as well. Controversial? Oh yes, very much so, but I'm going to argue why it's highly likely to be true.

Manufacturers have been toying with solid-state drives for a few years. Based on flash memory, their faster seek times are considered by many types of computer user to be advantageous over the higher sustained data transfer rates offered by hard disk drives. Apple recently offered a 64GB SSD inside its new MacBook Air laptop; Creative's Zen media player maxes out at 32GB -- a media player capacity previously only commercially achievable with 1.8-inch HDDs; and 32GB SDHC cards may effectively compete with HD discs in the eyes of the general consumer when we all move to on-demand solutions.

Although it's no secret flash memory is snowballing in both capacity and adoption, there are other concurrent movements in the CE industry -- most notably, on-demand movies and television -- that may end up harnessing and exploiting advancements in flash memory. This could ultimately help flash grow further, negating the need for optical media, and possibly magnetic storage such as the humble HDD.

Pointless war
The battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD is one most people reclined back into a chair with a glass of Sancerre to watch, with a plan to simply hold hands with the victorious format. But with broadband Internet access gaining increasing ubiquity around the world, and on-demand media becoming ever more popular, the lifespan of the HD optical disc may be significantly shorter than previous formats used for the same purpose.

Apple's launch of on-demand movie rentals compliments its -- and others' -- existing download-to-own services, and opens up a new market for portable storage -- the flash drive. Downloading a movie over the Web makes so much sense, but without some form of transport there's no convenient way of taking that movie to a friend's house for a movie night. Buy the Blu-ray disc version of that movie and you'd not only find it easier to take it to a friend's house, but you'd also have hours and hours of 'bonus' content to enjoy too.

Pointless formats
But that makes me wonder how much point there is in excessive amounts of bonus content. I saw a demo given at the Blu-ray Disc Association's stand at CES this year, showing the 'interactive game' built into the Alien Vs. Predator BD release. I mean, come on! Something that daft, that PSOne-esque, should not be sold as a feature of an HD format. It's pretty much there to justify the existence of the generally unnecessary capacity of BD-ROMs. Give me the movie, some outtakes and a behind the scenes featurette -- which could be bundled into one on-demand download -- and I'll pop it onto a flash card should I want to take it somewhere. I doubt anyone gives a toss about a rubbish game bundled on a movie disc.

The PlayStation 3 console currently needs optical HD discs because of the naturally cumbersome volume of data required by HD games. But with the joint effort of on-demand game downloads and cheaper, higher-capacity hard disk drives, the optical disc could be disposed of, replaced by attractive blank flash drives -- a Game Card, if you want -- with which you can carry your game to a friend's house for playing on their console. The hard disk and flash disc co-operate here to negate the need of an HD disc.

But that's not all... 

Dying formats
Music's part in this pseudo-Shakespearean tragedy -- with the optical disc playing the lead role -- is somewhat obvious. On-demand music -- even lossless music -- is gathering great pace in the market, and the job of the CD will ultimately be called into question. Many people already use flash drives to take an album they (legally) downloaded to a friend's house, and I see this being the case with both HD movies and HD games.

I'm not even going to mention how easy it would be for computer software to be exclusively delivered on-demand or via small flash drives. There's also the advantage that expensive software -- we're talking industrial CAD stuff for example, not just Photoshop -- can be better protected against piracy when distributed on flash. Rather than using a DVD and a user-inputted serial number, software can require an original disk (read: flash drive) be in place (read: in the USB port) for an install to take place.

Future formats
The other major player in this discussion is the hard disk, which is still required -- alongside the progression of on-demand, download-to-own media consumption and broadband penetration -- in order to vanquish the optical disc. But once optical media is out of the picture, flash will ultimately attack HDDs, its previous sidekick. As we saw earlier, flash-based SSDs are already beginning to encroach on the HDD territory, and it will continue to fight aggressively. As flash adoption becomes greater, prices will fall and SSDs will be viable replacements of HDDs.

However, while flash will eventually dominate the space currently taken by DVDs, HD discs and CDs, there are a couple of areas that it will never dominate until vastly significant advances are made.

Format problems
A PC's RAM is extraordinarily fast now, and outstrips the common flash drive in a heartbeat. Its speed is crucial to the performance of a computer and, although products like Windows Vista's ReadyBoost compliment it, it does just that: compliment, not replace. The same is true for enterprise HDDs -- their incredible data transfer speeds are paramount to their successes as relentlessly fast data storage solutions.

Finally, cost is a factor -- a small flash drive is not as cheap to manufacture as a CD. But if 95 per cent of software was distributed online, 5 per cent on flash, would it matter? The finite number of erase/write cycles of flash memory may pose as an issue within industrial environments. But a) does Average Joe care, and b) these are things that should advance with a little more time.

The bottom line is that flash may replace optical media, and, with the help of better on-demand, download-to-own solutions and faster broadband, it'll co-operate with HDD to eliminate the HDD. -Nate Lanxon