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MEMORY LANE: A storage story

Tue, 03/31/2009 - 8:30pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer, Denver, Colo.

Don’t look now, but as a media-awash civilization,
we’re about to start talking terabytes of personal storage.
That’s a lot of floppy discs..

Gen-Xers won’t understand this, but for those who lived through personal computing’s genesis in the 1980s, one of the most welcome events of all was the death of the floppy disc. Square in shape, spanning 5 1/4 inches and as ginger as a Stewart Schleydebutante, the “floppy” was to digital storage what the 45-RPM “single” was to recorded music. That is to say: not much.

The floppy’s capacity – and this is where the younger crowd will double over laughing – was 360 kilobytes. And of the two media, the 45-RPM record was by far the sturdier. So frequently did floppy discs return “unreadable” messages that in many offices the things regularly flew through the air like mini-Frisbees, hurled out of rage with every error.

It seemed as if one of the world’s great problems had been solved, then, with the introduction of a nimbler successor. Measuring just 3 1/2 inches, the new portable PC disk seemed to be everything the floppy was not: durable, handy, reliable. Where the floppy earned its name by drooping and sagging because of its thin material, the new diskettes (how cute!) were encased in hard plastic – a body armor that seemed to suggest an impenetrable quality. We took to them like Oreos, replacing old PCs with new models that accepted both old-school floppies (alas, they were still around) and the newer, hipper alternatives.

It wasn’t just about durability: The new-age diskettes leapfrogged the old floppy standard, housing up to 1.44 megabytes of data. It was a veritable reservoir of bits, nearly five times the capacity of its loathsome predecessor. The new diskettes failed on occasion, true, but at much-reduced frequency. Even when they did, we were forgiving. Entire software programs could be housed within one or two diskettes, and our lust for storage seemed, for the moment, to have been satisfied.

But, of course, it never really is. A succession of richer, fatter software and an expansion of the range of content it could produce – photographic images, illustrations, complex games, even crude video files – demanded more capacity. The little diskettes never had much of a chance, as it turned out. In relatively quick order, diskettes were supplanted by beefier storage media: Bernoulli boxes, Zip drives, CD-ROMs. In the late 1980s, power users began boasting of new PCs featuring the unthinkable: a 1 gigabyte internal drive. Innocently enough, we amused ourselves by wondering what we might possibly do to fill a 1 GB hard drive, and generally came up empty.

But the storage story is never about a multiplication of today’s applications and file sizes. It’s a bet on what’s to come. Two or three years ago, few would have imagined a commercially deployed, highly scaled video download repository like Apple Inc.’s iTunes, but here it is. Along with it, and others of its ilk, are storage demands that would have seemed fantastical just a few years earlier. Download season five of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” from iTunes in high-definition format and you’ll engulf 23 GB of storage – more than exists in many home PCs today.

The technology research firm TDG estimates that by 2011, storage needs associated with consumer electronics and entertainment will exceed 2 terabytes per household – or more than 2,000 gigabytes. Even the hulking, 250 GB PCs on the shelf today will quickly be overwhelmed by the appetite for ready access to stored movies and HD video from multiple sources.

Where does it all end? It doesn’t really – not if history is our guide. Digital media developers have unleashed into the world marvelous capabilities in entertainment and information that we can find, capture, possess and enjoy. A 2008 study by Hitachi GST and KRC Research found that the typical U.S. adult owns digital media worth more than $1,600 – MP3 songs, movies on DVDs and more.

Finding clever ways to store and maintain that much content is the charge of today’s digital media inventors and schemers. It’s possible we’re nearing a point where no amount of localized storage can ever be enough, and that what the world now needs is access to a giant digital hard drive in the sky, so to speak. That’s the theory behind network DVR and other storage-locker ideas that already have taken hold in the digital photography world. Don’t look now, but as a media-awash civilization, we’re about to start talking terabytes of personal storage. That’s a lot of floppy discs.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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