by March 1, 2005 0 comments

Anil Chopra

Flash drives have started becoming ubiquitous. You’ll find them in most digital devices, be it PDAs, digital cameras, camcorders, MP3 players, USB flash drives the list goes on. They’re lightweight, have no moving elements, and their access is also instantaneous. That’s why when you turn on a PDA; you don’t have to wait for the OS to boot up. Same holds true while installing applications on a PDA. It’s simple and access is also instantaneous. Now imagine if we had flash memory in our PCs and notebooks, then think of the performance levels we’d get. This argument was unimaginable a few years ago, but things are changing. Let’s see how.

The biggest limitation for flash drives has been cost. They’re so expensive even for such small capacities that if they were to match capacities of current hard drives, their cost would be unimaginable. That’s the reason hard drives have reached maximum capacities in excess of 400 GB, while flash drives are still stuck at around 1 GB. But to turn this argument on its head, let’s take a practical scenario. 

Not so long ago, we did a story in which we loaded a fully functional Linux distribution, aptly named Puppy Linux, onto a 64 MB USB flash drive. You just had to insert it in your machine’s USB port and boot from it. What you got was a full-blown OS complete with a GUI, Web browser and an e-mail client. So practically, it’s possible to create software that’s stingy in using oodles of storage capacity. Instead of increasing the capacity of flash memory, if the software’s footprint is reduced, we achieve the same objective. It’s already happening in the embedded world, and the results are quite visible in all the digital devices we just mentioned. 
So frankly, what’s stopping somebody from embedding a 1 GB flash memory card inside a PC or notebook and loading an OS with applications on it, like we just mentioned? This machine could be used for basic productivity like e-mail, word processing, presentations and Web browsing. It would be easier to use, just like an appliance. Click on a button to access your e-mail, click on another to browse the Web, and yet another to load your financial accounting application. All this happens in an instant because it’s flash memory. If such a PC or notebook is made available at a low price, then the economies of scale could take over and force flash card manufacturers to increase the capacity of their flash memory devices and reduce the cost. Now let’s see what’s happening to the other side. 

Hard drives are also becoming ubiquitous. They’ve also started appearing everywhere and not just in PCs, notebooks, and servers, but also in printers, MP3 players, set top boxes and gaming consoles, CE and handheld devices, routers and firewalls. One reason for this ubiquity is their form factor. Manufacturers are trying to make hard drives smaller, ie reducing their form factor, so that they can fit into more devices. As they also become popular, their prices will also crash. 
This makes it difficult for flash memory to replace hard drives. However, if we consider the benefits of flash, ie no mechanical/moving parts, instant access and its less weight then it might just replace the hard drive at least for the entry-level PCs. But this doesn’t look likely in the near future though.

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