Making disk drives the star of the show

Agere is working to make tiny drives the heart of MP3 players and other devices. But are nonstandard approaches worth the risk?

Ed Frauenheim
Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
4 min read
If the engineers at Agere Systems have their way, small hard drives will play an even bigger role in music players and other handheld devices.

The semiconductor company is shopping around the idea that hard drives can do more than store data in consumer electronics products such as MP3 players and cell phones. In Agere's vision, the hard drive component would handle memory buffering for the overall device, and the computer chip "brains" of the drive would take on additional tasks such as decoding song files into actual music or processing radio signals for a mobile phone.

"A lot of that functionality can be pulled into the hard drive itself," said Duncan Furness, a senior marketing manager at Agere.


What's new:
Semiconductor company Agere Systems is shopping around the idea of making hard drives the heart of products such as cell phones, by expanding the tasks handled by the drive component.

Bottom line:
Integrating drives and handheld devices in this fashion could trim costs--a critical issue in consumer electronics. But such a custom approach could leave device makers without multiple hard drive suppliers, a risky strategy.

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Handing more work to the drive would also trim costs significantly, Furness said, which should make the concept attractive to the burgeoning cell phone market. Agere is working on a chip product to consolidate hard drive tasks with other functions and expects it to be ready by late next year. Consumer devices with this type of drive functionality could emerge in 2006, Furness said.

But Jim Porter, analyst at researcher Disk/Trend, warned that device makers will be wary about turning away from disk drive standards to a more custom approach. Using a unique design limits a manufacturer from getting drives from multiple suppliers, and therefore is risky, he argued. "It's going to be a tough sell," Porter said. "The makers of these final devices normally like to have a couple of choices in their vendors...The only way you can have that is to have standards."

Disk drives have been expanding from their historical role in computers to become storage repositories in a range of consumer devices. Consumer products often employ drives with a platter smaller than the 3.5-inch disks typically found in desktop PCs. Small drives already are a major force in the music player market--Apple Computer's popular iPod depends on a 1.8-inch drive, and the company's iPod Mini uses a 1-inch drive. The cellular phone market could prove to be the biggest consumer device arena of all for drives, which could be used to store music, video and images on advanced camera phones.

But serious challenges stand in the way of hard drives squeezing into mobile phones, including ruggedness, power consumption and cost. Cost is especially important given that prices are falling for flash memory, a rival storage technology based on semiconductors.

Furness said that Agere's vision of integrating the drive and broader system would trim expenses by eliminating components. Instead of two static RAM memory buffers for storing data temporarily, there would be one. Device makers also could get rid of a printed circuit board. Traditionally, there has been one board for the chips that handle signal amplification and other drive tasks and another for the silicon that may run an MP3 player or cell phone.

Money also would be saved because hard drive components would not have to be squeezed into such a tight package, Furness said. At the same time, the distance between the silicon running the drive and the device would shrink. This would lead to a smaller amount of electrical current needed, and therefore less-power-hungry devices, Furness said.

Agere is discussing its integration concept with companies that make both drives and whole systems, Furness said, but he declined to give names.

Agere isn't alone in looking to change the way hard drives work in handheld devices. A group including semiconductor giant Intel and drive companies Seagate Technology, Hitachi and Toshiba has formed to work on an interface standard specifically for consumer electronics and handheld gadgets.

In addition, start-up company Cornice has a product that essentially minimizes the role of the drive. Its stripped down "Storage Element" uses memory shared by the rest of the device to cache data.

Asked to comment on Agere's vision, Seagate did not endorse the concept outright. But Rob Pait, Seagate's director of global consumer electronics marketing, hinted that the company is open to new approaches.

"The handset OEM (original equipment manufacturer) business model is changing rapidly, and we think exciting advances are ahead, though it's too early to try to predict a specific direction handset memory architecture may go," Pait said in an e-mail message. "We believe that any architecture that incorporates the advantages of the hard drive into a handset is good for Seagate and the hard-drive business as a whole."

Tom Coughlin, a storage industry consultant, said that nonstandard methods of including a hard drive would be a concern to device makers. But he said tighter integration between drive and device is a key way to cut costs. "I think it's going to be the wave of the future," he said.