Solid State Disks Enter a New Market – Again!

by Robin Harris on Wednesday, 19 April, 2006

With Samsung’s announcement of a 32GB hard drive replacement using flash memory (like that in USB thumb drives) instead of rotating disks, the SSD is set to conquer a new market: the ultra-portable laptop. It is about time.

I owned and daily used for over five years the first SSD-based laptop: the original HP Omnibook 300, which was also the first usable ultra-portable laptop. The specs are laughable today: a 20MHz 386SX, 2MB RAM, 10MB flash drive (which replaced the 40MB HDD for an additional $400) and a 9″ grayscale non-backlit screen. ROM software including a usable PDA, MS Word, MS Excel, Laplink, MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1. The whole thing weighed less than 3 lbs, and with the flash drive the battery life was over 9 hours, which meant I’d only recharge it every few days. Plus, closing the case put it to sleep and opening it actually woke it up! It went weeks without re-booting Windows – a tribute to HP’s engineering. The sleep function has never worked for me on any other Windows laptop including IBM, Dell and Sony. And the 300 had a very cool pop-out mouse that worked well and made people ooh and ahh.

The benefits of flash-based disk are:

  • Power draw is dramatically reduced over a hard disk.
  • More reliable than hard drives – remember the camera flash cards recovered from destroyed cameras?
  • Lighter weight.
  • It looks like Samsung is fully realizing Moore’s Law by doubling – or more – flash memory capacity every 18 months, so 32GB will soon become 64GB, rivaling (at greater cost, of course) current 1.8″ drives

Naturally there will be some unexpected consequences of the 32GB flash drive:

  • Flash disk based ultra-portable laptops (and I expect Apple will be first to market with one given their close relationship to Samsung) with long battery life will start taking away market share from Treo-like devices. Why have a dock when you can have all your work with you?
  • Notebook disk drive prices and margins will drop. The 2.5″ and 1.8″ drive vendors now have an alternate technology that will give them a run for their money while also forcing them to pick up the pace of capacity increases.
  • Backup software will need to change to reflect the reliability of flash. Failed disks will basically be a thing of the past, so backup vendors will need to focus on issues of data corruption and theft. And that means losing the fussy interfaces: you plug into your office dock and all your data is replicated up to the second you unplug, and the user does nothing.

Samsung’s entry into the high-capacity flash disk market will be great for consumers as long as vendors design for battery life and not just light weight.

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