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The unsung hard drive

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos says it may not grab headlines, but there are changes aplenty in this often overlooked part of the technology business.

For hard drives, life seems to be an uphill battle.

Processors, operating systems and graphics-rich applications such as online games tend to be held up as the glamour products of the technology world, even though hard drives, with their mind-boggling advances, deserve just as much of the spotlight. But the perennially broke platter industry still gets overlooked: In the jungle that is high tech, the hard drive is the bandicoot.

Invented in 1956, hard-drive platters have seen their capacity increase more than 60 percent a year since 1991, putting the industry on par with the semiconductor industry.

To survive, the hard-drive industry has historically had an Elvis-like flair.
Density doubled annually from about 1997 to about 2001.

As a result of the increases, massive amounts of data can now be stored on desktop computers. Earlier this year, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies came out with a 400GB drive. That's room for about 200 movies or 20 years' worth of a weekly sitcom.

Which is good, because the amount of data out there is growing. In 2002, approximately 5 exabytes (5 billion gigabytes) of new data was inserted onto paper, optical disks, film and electronic storage devices, according to the How Much Information? project at the University of California at Berkeley.

"If digitized with full formatting, the 17 million books in the Library of Congress contain about 136 terabytes of information; five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in 37,000 new libraries the size of the Library of Congress book collections," the report stated. Hard drives absorbed about 2 exabytes of the total.

The report also found that 400,000 terabytes of e-mail get produced per year, as do 274 terabytes of instant messages. (A terabyte is a million million bytes.) The surface Web--the Web people can access--contains about 170 terabytes of data.

Meanwhile, manufacturers have applied the principles of density to make physically small drives and so change consumer electronics. These minidrives don't hold as much data as larger platters, but they can fit in a lot. Apple Computer was first to tap into this ability with its iPod digital music player, which incorporates a Toshiba drive that measures 1.8 inches in diameter.

"Everyone else stood back and watched and said, 'Go ahead,'" said Maciek Brzeski, the vice president of marketing for Toshiba's storage division.

Since then, Cornice, Hitachi and others have begun to promote 1-inch drives for consumer electronics. Over the coming months, Sony, Philips and others plan to bring out music players, storage keys and digital cameras with minidrives.

Consumers clearly go nuts over storage. Earlier this month, a number of people got giddy when they believed that Google was giving 1 terabyte of storage to subscribers to Gmail, its e-mail service.

Forget that the Gmail service is embroiled in controversy, with privacy advocates alleging (with almost no foundation) that the service violates wiretapping laws.

Forget also that no one will ever use it. Google already offers Gmail subscribers 1GB of free storage. It would take up to 30 feet of books to print 800MB on paper, according to the How Much Information? survey.

TiVo and the rest of the members of the video-on-demand industry exist largely because of cheap drives.
A terabyte would be equivalent to 37,000 books.

There's a more important principle at stake with Gmail: It's free. Rivals Yahoo and Lycos had no choice but to up the storage on their e-mail sites.

TiVo and the rest of the members of the video-on-demand industry exist largely because of cheap drives. Next year, drives will likely become instrumental in the film industry. For example, Revelations Entertainment, actor Morgan Freeman's production company, has said that in 2005, it will release a movie onto the Internet on the same day it comes out in theaters.

As an added bonus, the hard-drive industry has historically had an Elvis-like flair. Al Shugart, who helped create the hard drive at IBM and later founded Seagate Technology, comes across like a retired FBI agent on vacation. He wears , smokes cigarettes and talks about the crazy stuff his dog does around the house.

"In my only Shugart interview, he took his shoes off in the middle of it and put them on the table," recalled a reporter who has worked in the industry for about two decades. "Then he sent his limo driver out for a huge sack of McDonald's."

Finis Connor, who founded hard-drive maker Conner Peripherals (now part of Seagate), was known to have one of the largest offices in the Western Hemisphere, according to those who hiked across it.

The only thing missing is profits. Typically, hard-drive companies lose money or barely eke out a margin. A gigabyte of storage at retail costs about 50 cents to 80 cents. Large purchasers get it for far less. Google's costs on Gmail are likely minimal, said Jim Porter, president of research firm Disk/Trend.

"In the mid-'80s, there were about 76 hard-drive manufacturers," Porter said. "Now, depending on how you count it, you can get to maybe 10."

Will the outlook improve? Probably not greatly. Stuart Parkin, an IBM research fellow, recently extrapolated that the entire output of the drive industry in the near future will be capable of storing all the data ever produced. That's why IBM sold off its drive business to Hitachi, he explained.

To survive, manufacturers will have to manage their expenses tightly, Porter said. Nonetheless, when the next 400,000 terabytes of e-mail come in, the drive makers will be there.