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... 

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