CES Big Picture #2: When size stops mattering

While the hi-def ecosystem was completing its virtuous circle in what seemed to be every other booth in all the square mileage of boothspace that was CES 2007, another less noticeable trend was lurking beneath the surface: miniaturization.For years, technology has often been about things getting smaller.

While the hi-def ecosystem was completing its virtuous circle in what seemed to be every other booth in all the square mileage of boothspace that was CES 2007, another less noticeable trend was lurking beneath the surface: miniaturization.

For years, technology has often been about things getting smaller. Back in 1986, when I was an IT manager, I had an interesting inventory of technology sitting next to my desk that was running  a local area network.  The computer was an IBM XT with a dual-sided 360K floppy drive. Inside of it were two enourmous adapters one of which was a 3Com Ethernet board and the other a hard drive drive interface from a company called Emulex. Coming out the back of the computer were two cables. One was a super thick difficult to bend cable from the Ethernet card to a cigarette-sized Ethernet transceiver which in turn connected to another coaxial cable that was so tempermental that simply touching it could bring the entire network down. The other was a giant ribbon cable that stretched from the back of the Emulex board to a cabinet that was the size of two large dorm room refrigerators combined. That cabinet housed a 30 MB hard drive.  It was the largest capacity hard drive we could find.  My office was always a solid 30 degrees warmer than any other office in the building. The setup cost around $20,000.

At CES 2007, Hitachi was present, showing the first ever 1 terabyte hard drive (the previous record was 750GB).  It could easily fit into the standard bay of any desktop computer or server and it the list price (it'll "street" for less) is $399 (that's 40 cents per GB). From a miniaturization point of view, the good news about disk drives is that one day, that terabyte will fit into one of those drives that go into notebook computers. So, the incredibly shrinking hard drive is still shrinking. 

But one thing that won't shrink is the smallest form factor for "handle-able" memory.  This is memory that you can handle with your hands. While at CES, Sandisk showed me its $99 2GB microSD card. This is it folks. In terms of handle-able memory, I don't think memory "boards" will get much smaller. Why? Not because we won't be able to further shrink the number of gigabytes that can be stored per square millimeter. That trend will continue. The problem is that if the microSD card gets any smaller, most people won't be able to handle them. For example, they won't be able very easily insert or remove them from their slots. And, they'll be too easily lost. Already there's a problem. If you have multiple microSD cards, there's pretty much no way to label them (in the event that you're keeping something like a database on one). 

What will change, however, is how much memory fits on that tiny microSD card. Today it's 2GB. Tomorrow, it'll be 4, then 8, and 16, and so on. This trend in both hard drive and memory miniaturization is one of the trends that's enabling and fueling the category of ultra mobile PCs (UMPCs) of which there were quite a few at CES. I spied four of them from Seamless Internet, Samsung, OQO, and Black Diamond and summarized my findings in the video at the bottom of this blog post. What's most interesting here is that, with the miniaturization of memory, we are now seeing ultra mobile PCs ship with Solid State Drives (SSDs, notice there's no "disk" in that acronym). Samsung's Q1-SSD for example has a 32GB SSD in it which means there are no moving parts in the device. No moving parts means better durability and faster operation (including boot times): both of which have traditionally been issues for smaller computing devices.

Here's the video: 

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