Drive maker Western Digital may go mobile

The company is considering a new line of hard drives used in notebook PCs and will enter the market "quickly if it chooses to," an executive says.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
2 min read
Western Digital is eyeing an entry into the market for hard drives used in notebook PCs.

The Lake Forest, Calif., hard-drive manufacturer, which offers disks for desktop PCs and servers, has begun development work on a new line of mobile drives and could enter the market quickly if it chooses to, said Steve Wilkins, director of marketing for enterprise products at Western Digital.

Though the company hasn't yet assembled any prototype notebook drives, "it's definitely on the drawing board. We're starting technology (development), so we're doing all the work behind the scenes," Wilkins said. "It's really just a question of when we roll the product out, if we roll the product out."

The notebook drive market is a draw for companies such as Western Digital. While desktops and servers represent the bulk of the available hard-drive market, unit shipments of notebook PCs are rapidly increasing. Notebooks made up about 23.5 percent of the total 136 million PCs shipped worldwide in 2002, according to market researcher IDC.

Western Digital CEO Matt Massengill first revealed the company's notebook intentions during an IDC forum last month, Wilkins said.

While notebook drives could be an opportunity for Western Digital to increase profits, its entry into the industry doesn't come without risk. Like other areas in the PC market, competition among component suppliers in notebooks is fierce.

Seagate Technology, another desktop and server hard-drive manufacturer, entered the notebook hard-drive market earlier this week with its debut of Momentus, a new line of notebook drives with capacities starting at 20GB and 40GB. Seagate executives said interest from notebook manufacturers is high because several top notebook drive makers already have pre-existing relationships with PC companies.

Other more established players in the market, including Hitachi Global Storage, Toshiba and Fujitsu, have the advantage of well-known notebook drive lines that cover a wide range of models.

Furthermore, while some basic technology can be shared across different drive families, notebook drives have several special requirements, making them somewhat more difficult to design. The drives must be made smaller than their desktop counterparts because of the tighter confines of a notebook chassis. Mobile drives also must limit power consumption to help lengthen notebook battery life. As a result, standard notebook drives measure 2.5-inches across, whereas desktop drives are 3.5-inches.

Because of their smaller size, the drives typically store less data and cost more than desktop drives of similar capacities. Currently, the top notebook drives offer a maximum of 80GB of storage capacity, while desktop drives offer 250GB.

The debut of a notebook hard drive from Western Digital could coincide with the rise in use of Serial ATA, a relatively new hard-drive interface specification, in notebooks. PC makers have recently begun building desktops using Serial ATA drives and are expected to begin adopting the specification in notebooks in the near future. Western Digital, which offers a number of Serial ATA drives, may wait until the specification takes root in notebooks.

"Timing-wise, that makes sense," Wilkins said.