By Jon Fortt
April 19, 2007

As soon as three or four years from now, most of the latest PCs will blend hard drives with flash memory in a new type of hybrid drive, says Bill Watkins, CEO of Seagate (STX), the world’s top maker of hard drives. It was the first time I’ve heard an industry executive give an estimate for when the technology will go mainstream.

Watkins said he expects the hybrid drives to come with between 8 and 10 gigabytes of flash memory.

Several major hard drives makers have announced plans to sell hybrid drives. Samsung began shipping its MH80 hybrid drive last month with 128-256 megabytes of flash paired with 80-160 GB of hard drive storage.

There are two main benefits of the hybrid hard drive: It allows a computer to boot in just a few seconds, and it saves power by doing more work through energy-sipping flash storage.

Hybrid drives also come with potential drawbacks, particularly the speed of accessing seldom-used data; it can take longer to access programs or other information that’s not stored on the flash portion if the hard drive. Also, it’s next to impossible to recover data that’s been damaged or erased from a flash drive, while culling it from hard drives is easier.

It’s significant that Watkins was the one to made the prediction about hybrid drives. For several months now he’s been answering critics who say hard drive technology will be overtaken by flash, a semiconductor-based technology that’s smaller, more power-efficient, and more expensive than hard drives. At first, he seemed to take more of a hard line on the benefits of hard drives vs. flash. Then when I last spoke to Watkins several months ago, he casually mentioned that Seagate has nothing against flash – the company was even considering an investment in the technology. When I spoke with him again Wednesday it seemed clear that Seagate was even closer to announcing some type of flash-related partnership or acquisition, though Watkins said, “I’m not going to pre-announce anything.” He did point out that Seagate has several people on staff who are knowledgeable about flash technologies, and that now could be a good time for a new player to enter the flash market since current technologies are getting long in the tooth.

If Watkins’s prediction about hybrid drives bears out, it could have a profound effect on the flash market, and thus the consumer electronics market as a whole. Worldwide, nearly 250 million PCs shipped in 2006; if just 200 million ship with hybrid drives in 2011, it could significantly boost demand for the NAND flash memory produced by the likes of Samsung, the Toshiba – SanDisk (SNDK) partnership, and the Intel (INTC) – Micron Technology (MU) partnership. That in turn could allow those companies to offer cheap, high-capacity storage for cell phones and other mobile media devices. (Think high-definition camcorders with built-in flash storage and flash card expansion, mobile TiVo, and iPhones with much more than 8 GB of storage.)

Microsoft (MSFT) is already giving a boost to the hybrid hard drive movement with Windows Vista, which can take advantage of the technology through its Windows ReadyDrive feature; But the hybrid drives have been slow coming to market from manufacturers such as Seagate, Samsung and Toshiba. Still, I’d expect to see a variety of hybrid hard drive laptops from major Windows PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Dell (DELL) by next year. Then we’ll see whether the technology takes off as quickly as Watkins predicts.

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