Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
May 12th, 2008

The Revolution in Storage

One of the technological innovations I have written about here and here in this column has been the reduction in size and cost of computer storage. It is one of the more significant developments in computing over the past two decades. It is part of the foundation that has allowed the explosion in mobile computing to occur. It is an integral part of the massive media files we can all now assemble and of course in the ability for all of us to become ever more productive as individuals.

Seagate, the largest producer of hard drives recently announced that it had just shipped its’ one billionth hard drive. In 1979 the company was an early trailblazer in the manufacturing of hard drives small enough for the early PC’s that were just being produced. Their first product was the ST506 which held just 5MB of storage, was 5.5 inches wide and weighed 5 pounds. This was revolutionary compared to the 14 inch and 8 inch drives that were standard at the time. This first innovation of size reduction has, of course continued to this day. A similar sized external hard drive today would hold not 5MB of storage, but 500 Gigabytes of storage, an increase of 100,000% in terms of capacity to weight and size.

What is even more revolutionary is the reduction in cost of hard drive storage. The ST506 was priced at $1,500 for a cost of $300 per megabyte. The most recent Seagate hard drive has 1TB (terabyte) of storage and cost just 1/50th of a cent, or $0,0002 per MB. So the cost of storage has dropped so that 1TB today costs less than 5MB did 29 years ago. That is simply astounding.

Seagate, in making its announcement of having sold one billion hard drives came up with some interesting statistics. What the company has shipped already amounts to 79 million terabytes of storage. That is enough for 158 billion hours of digital video or 1.2 trillion hours of MP3 songs. The ST506 would have held just one song. So, if you are reading this listening to music from your computer, praise this revolution of cost and size reduction.

Storage capacity will continue to dramatically grow as it will continue to cost less and shrink in physical size. It has been projected that all the books published in a given year, currently some 175,000 titles, will fit on an iPod or more appropriately a Kindle sized device by 2015. At that point we will no longer be talking about ebooks, we will be talking about elibraries that fit into ones’ pocket.

Much of the conversation in the world of technology and media is about the accelerating capacity of wireless broadband, of ever faster processor chips and the growing ability for all of us to access vast amounts of data with the touch of a finger or, increasingly the sound of our voice. All of this is true but one of the underlying factors allowing us to live in this new media rich broadband world is the exponential expansion of capacity, reduction in size and cost of storage.

High speed Internet connectivity and mobility will allow us to change the way we live in the new world of expensive energy affecting commuting and travel. Until we free ourselves from fossil fuels, this connectivity will serve as an essential lifestyle alternative for work, play and human interaction. The ever lower cost and size of storage will allow us to dispense with the destruction of natural resources to create things, whose €˜thing-ness’ will be increasingly unnecessary in the digital world. How many trees are killed every year for books, book shelves and all forms of paper products? How much environmentally unsound plastic products are used for packaging DVDs and CDs?

One of the unsung heroes of the digital technological transformation of the last 30 years has been the revolution in computer storage. It is one of the parents of the long tail economy.

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