Hardware

Peter Cochrane's Blog: The last CD

Storage is growing faster than any other commodity...

Written at a Copenhagen hotel and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi service

Ask yourself this simple question: when was the last time you burned a CD and can you even remember the floppy disk? The old 1.44MB floppies survived for a long time but then quickly succumbed to the 700MB CD.

However, what was a surprise was the short lifespan of the CD. It was rapidly supplanted by ubiquitous and very cheap memory sticks and pocket drives.

What really happened here? Was there more to it than a pure technology race? I think so. The floppy had user convenience and confidence on its side and so does the memory stick and pocket drive. Nothing beats a simple drag and drop.

In contrast CDs and DVDs require a great deal more fuss and bother with the process of burning and verification. But worse, and more irritating, they are slow to burn and bulky to store. They also come in several variants in terms of physical size, read, read-write and data format.

Most people I know now travel with a memory stick and an MP3 player or pocket drive. One obtuse indicator of their utility and popularity is the fact that they are given away as freebies at conferences and other events instead of pens. This sometimes also extends to mobiles, PDAs and cameras at the more expensive conferences.

Today I carry a 4GB memory stick but I see units at 8GB, 16GB and 32GB for sale at really low prices, while pocket drives exceed 100GB. When travelling internationally I carry a mirror of my laptop in the form of a 120GB pocket hard drive stashed in my luggage, while at home I enjoy several terabytes.

The magic here is the speed of FireWire, convenience of connection, and ease of access - and all for zip. My latest terabyte cost just less than £200 complete in a box with power supply and interfaces. That is less than 20p per gigabyte. Amazing when you consider that just 10 years ago it was more than £2 per gigabyte.

Where will it all end? Here are my predictions. First, DVDs, HDVDs, Blu-ray et al will soon share the same fate as the floppy and CD - and will be overtaken by much cheaper and far more convenient hard drives of petabyte capacity.

Secondly, a key element in their demise will be the deployment of real broadband at speeds greater than 100Mbps, which will see a hybrid world of thick and thin clients operating in fixed and mobile modes.

Finally, and best of all, this will all be achieved at a lower cost and power consumption, less raw material than anything that has gone before.

Don't believe me? Cast a quick eye over history and then just wait a decade - or two. As a young engineer 35 years ago I was buying 20MB Winchester disks for a mere £20,000. That was £1,000 per megabyte - and we thought it was cheap. Today a 1GB memory stick costs less than £10, which is less than 1p per megabyte.

Will this incredible trend really continue? Not only can I not see why it shouldn't, I can see why it might even accelerate. As the physicist Richard Feynman famously said: "There is plenty of room at the bottom." And, of course, we walk around with the existence theorem between our ears.

So for those strangling the rollout of broadband I say: you are slowing down humanity, wasting vast amounts of raw materials and energy, and contributing to the de-greening of our planet.

And to those seeking to nail all the content on the planet with copyright protection technology: you increasingly look like King Canute trying to hold back the tide.

Storage technology is growing faster than any other commodity, and the smart thing is to start thinking about new distribution systems, networks and business models.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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