Hollywood may demand DRM for larger harddrives - analyst

Scotts Valley (CA) - Harddrives using perpendicular recording are on track to hit the market in early 2006 with capacities of up to 160 or even 200 GByte in 2.5" form factors. Consumer electronics using these devices could follow soon thereafter - but Hollywod may have a say in how quickly these monster drives make their way into portable audio and video players, Tom's Hardware Guide has learned.

More space for portable consumer electronics is a no brainer. Who wouldn't want more space on their iPods and enough room for several movies on PMPs and currently rumored video iPods? Some analysts claim its not as easy as just building these new drives into devices. If there is to be a roadblock, it may come from content and media providers, including Hollywood studios, which may seek to enact regulations or legislation mandating the inclusion of digital rights management (DRM) facilities in CE devices that use high-capacity drives, as Michael Cai, senior analyst with Parks Associates, told Tom's Hardware Guide.

The moment you become capable of reading and writing movies and transporting that content across borders, Cai said, "Hollywood can get really concerned. What if you can carry like 20 movies with you all the time, and they can't control the content any more?" It's the possible crossing of geographic boundaries that's the problem, Cai said - a problem that wouldn't crop up if the media device were made to sit on your desktop at home, no matter how small it becomes.

The technology that may make this capability - as well as this debate - possible is called perpendicular storage. The technology vastly increases storage densities in harddrives by changing the way magnetic elements are polarized, so that their magnetic pull upon one another doesn't cause them to flip each other at the extremely close range that small form factors require. As analysts tell us, Seagate's accelerated development will inevitably expedite the plans of competitors who have also made announcements in the perpendicular space, including Toshiba, Hitachi, Western Digital, and Maxtor.

Dave Reinsel, storage analyst for IDC, disagrees. With regard to Cai's theory that digital rights management could - though not necessarily - hold up perpendicular drive implementation in small devices, Reinsel told us, "I fail to see the link between perpendicular recording and that phenomenon. There's likely to be DRM-type strategies, especially with some of the latest court rulings, imposed upon the industry, and hard drive manufacturers may find themselves in the thick of it in helping to enable compliance to these DRMs, but that's more in the electronics strategy, not storage."

Smaller, higher-capacity hard drives could lead to the development of smaller, portable video devices with both record and playback capabilities. Seagate spokesperson David Szabados told Tom's Hardware Guide today, "In many cases, it is the disk drive itself that has directly enabled the introduction of many of these new devices we see. As we increase overall capacities using perpendicular recording, we'll see an advancement in those existing products as well as new unique applications as well. For example, it's only a matter of time before devices specifically designed to store and playback high-definition television become mainstream."

Squint carefully at Szabados' statement, and you might just be able to make out the term, "video iPod."
If DRM does not pose any obstacles whatsoever to perpendicular's adoption, Cai believes there's nothing else preventing CE manufacturers such as Apple from implementing new drives from Seagate and other manufacturers, leading to a new wave of high-capacity portable storage devices as soon as Christmas 2006. "Since [Seagate and competitors] have established relationships with a lot of the CE manufacturers now," said Cai, "I think the migration is smoother...I see the lead time may not be as long as we might have imagined, because most hard drive companies already have done CE drives already, so they have the expertise."

This morning, Seagate CFO Charles Pope, in a conference call to analysts, stated nearly all his company's hard drives produced at the end of 2006 will feature perpendicular recording technology.

According to Szabados, desktop computers will not be the first devices to see perpendicular recording drives, and probably not high-def DV-Rs. "The most logical areas to introduce perpendicular recording," remarked Szabados, "are with devices and areas that are severely space-constrained and/or portable but need further storage capacity, which is why you'll hear about them used in notebooks and CE devices first. While the transition will also occur in disk drives used within enterprise-class servers for example, it's less critical since a typical data center is a bit more flexible with regards to storage. Also, an enterprise server environment is often focused more on performance I/O needs to get information out to client systems, and overall capacity is less of an issue."

"At this point," related IDC's Reinsel, "we know that the last place it's likely to show up is in desktops, which happens to be a large part of the volume." Instead, Reinsel said, the pressure comes from CE manufacturers who are looking for smaller hard drives as a low-cost substitute or even replacement for flash memory. "I think that's where the battle is," said Reinsel, "bringing laptop/notebook type devices to a capacity that's commensurate with desktop PCs that's using 3.5", and then also providing leverage in a dollar-per-gig advantage from flash in the MP3 player space. That's where the two instances of perpendicular are going to show up first."

While the storage industry at large may not be in as much of a rush as has been reported lately to retool for perpendicular, said Reinsel, he agreed that the timeframe Seagate outlined today should lead to the availability of high-capacity CE devices by early 2007.

For its part - true to form - spokespersons for Apple Computer declined comment for this article.

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