It is deeply unfashionable to admit it, but when used appropriately patents are still doing a good job. Away from the febrile software wars, hardware is still being invented, protected and revealed. Iomega's latest wheeze, which uses nanotechnology to push DVD capacity to a potential 800GB, very nearly a terabyte, may and probably will, turn out to be just another bright storage idea swept aside by politics, timing or physics. If not, though, the products will beg one question. What needs that much space?
800GB is the equivalent of 1000 CDs, a figure that immediately rules out any role in commercial music or film distribution. Even at their most generous, the licensing organisations are unlikely to let such huge compilations go for under the equivalent of a fiver per CD or DVD. However, as the explosive success of online media sharing systems such as Flickr shows, there is no storage too big when people are encouraged to create and conspire rather than consume and confine.
For software distribution, there is a fighting chance that by the time the technology is mature Microsoft might have shrunk Longhorn II enough to fit it onto a couple of the new discs. In reality, though, it's hard to see what commercial product would simultaneously need so much storage while being cheap enough to develop and sell at a reasonable price. Try collating a few of the hundreds of Linux distros out there, though, and space no longer seems so plentiful.
The only world in which enormous amounts of single-disk storage makes sense is one in which free creativity and distribution are encouraged — the same forces that have made broadband so popular and useful. Whether or not Iomega's invention is anything more than a footnote, when the technological history of the early twenty-first century comes to be written it will be the free movement of good ideas that maintained the momentum of growth.