The flash memory era

Broadway grannies and tempestuous teenagers are just the start. What I saw at CompuTex is a growing glut of flash drive capacity. Gigabytes in the hand are getting literally cheap as chips.

One of the great joys in following Moore's Law is watching technologies overtake one another.

It has happened twice in this decade.

First, flat chip-based screens overtook cathode ray tubes, pushing the latter toward extinction. Then aluminum hard disks blew by optical disks, turning CDs and DVDs into glorified floppies.

Now as the decade ends it's happening again. This time it's those hard disks that are the victims. They are being replaced by chip memory.

Not everywhere, as with picture tubes. This is more like the CD-hard drive battle. The losing format still has value, it just must cede its place.

That place being the client. You. Chips are just better for your active lifestyle.

We're seeing it first in the palm of your hand. I have had a disk-based iPod for three years, but when I went shopping for my mother's 86th birthday present I chose an iPod Nano.

It wasn't for looks or usability (mom has been blind for 30 years) but because 8 Gigabytes was plenty of storage to hold all the Broadway tunes she loves, and more besides. And because it's rugged -- if she drops the thing there's no risk of breakage.

It's durability that is moving flash memory from the hand to the lap, as in a Netbook. My HP Mini has no moving parts. When my son got mad and kicked it across the room while in Taiwan, it took the licking and kept on ticking. That might have been fatal to a conventional laptop.

Broadway grannies and tempestuous teenagers are just the start.

What I saw at CompuTex is a growing glut of flash drive capacity. Gigabytes in the hand are getting literally cheap as chips. We can take just so many drives shaped like sushi (above, from Cutiegadget) before the novelty fades. (Although I expect my dentist to be giving away an imprinted flash drive by next year.)

What we're more likely to see are thumb drives, flash drives, or key drives (take your pick) used for software delivery. You can put Linux on a stick, or you can encrypt its data for security.

USB drives (another name for the same thing) are one of the biggest security issues that enterprise customers face, since the same ports that connect needed peripherals can also download your secrets and go into a thief's pocket.

John Morris notes that these drives aren't yet ready for prime-time desktop computing. Capacities of 80-160 Gbytes pale next to the terabytes people can now put on their desks. But Moore's Law means that next year's chip drives will have more memory, and those of 2011 even more.

So what happens to hard disks? Their ginormous capacity will always be welcome in the enterprise, and for network storage. They still cost less, per gigabyte, than chips, they are very reliable when they're sitting still, and they continue to improve, too.

But your life, and my life, is going to be in the chips from now on. The flash memory era is here.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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