Death of the laptop hard drive has been exaggerated

Apple’s (Nasdaq: AAPL) recent announcement that flash storage would be the standard method of storing data in the new MacBook Air generated a bit of excitement in the storage world. While Apple already offers flash-based storage options for its build-to-order MacBook Pro models, this is the first time the company has made flash the default storage method for an entire notebook line.

At the press event, Apple CEO Steve Jobs pointed out that solid-state drives (SSDs) perform faster and more reliably than magnetic-based drives, making them ideal for portable computers. Indeed, flash memory has often been considered the wave of the future. It is more durable and reliable than magnetic based-drives; it is able to withstand intense pressure, temperature extremes, and possible inversion in water–all beneficial for laptop computers.

For many in the storage market, Apple’s decision to utilize flash technology was not unexpected. Mike Milhalik, Senior Engineer and Product Manager at LaCie, has been anticipating the rise of flash for years, and even predicted Apple’s pioneering role in that market. In an interview with Macworld, Milhalik said that the biggest catalyst to flash’s rise in the market could be Apple’s decision to “push the flash curve.”

Some business analysts think it won’t be long before laptop hard drives will be replaced by SSDs.

Milhalik sees the inclusion of flash in Apple’s MacBook Air line as part of Apple’s overall strategy over the next few years. Part of the struggle for Apple will be to continue to define itself as the high-end developer for laptops. You can buy a decent PC laptop for $500, so Apple has to find ways to justify the higher price of its comparable products. Milhalik sees flash as one way for the MacBook line to keep its “premiere” label.

Now Apple has a laptop equipped with a cutting-edge storage technology that is more reliable, faster, and more compact than conventional hard drives–allowing Apple to make smaller, lighter laptops. “We know the benefits [of flash],” Jobs told reporters. Apple is no doubt also familiar with the tradeoffs of switching to flash memory.

While flash has many benefits for Apple’s computers and for users, the technology is not without its drawbacks. Flash is still more expensive to produce than conventional hard drives and the scarcity of the chips used in Apple’s drives makes it difficult for flash to become the standard storage solution for all of Apple’s internal drives.

This is why some industry experts admit that while more of the market will be captured by flash, it’s by no means going to be supplanting magnetic-based hard drives. Brendan Collins, Vice President of Product Marketing at Hitachi GST, sees the potential for flash drives in personal computers to be small, and the possibilities in the mobile market–like in netbooks and high-end notebooks– to be considerable, but not infinite. “Next two years [flash] will probably be five to six percent of the market,” explains Collins. This is significant, but suggests that flash-based technology won’t displace magnetic-drives anytime soon.

While most industry experts agree you’ll see an increased presence of flash, it’s hard to find someone who thinks flash will supplant hard drives in all of Apple’s lines. The MacBook Air will in all likelihood be a great product for a segment of the Mac community, but the needs of Air users are very different than the needs of MacBook Pro users. In regards to MacBooks, Milhalik doesn’t see flash-based memory as being economically feasible “for the price-conscious consumer.” In particular, the MacBook Pro line, which is geared towards the content creation professions, will need to be adaptable and offer larger capacities than a MacBook Air. Flash-based memory that is embedded in the motherboard isn’t easily modified and offering the capacities that creative professionals need would be a very expensive proposition.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about Apple’s inclusion of flash, either.

Industry experts like Jonathan Huberman, President of Iomega, calls Apple’s decision to exclusively offer flash-based memory in its MacBook Air line “bad news.” The problem, as he sees it, is the expectations it sets. “People will realize the advantages like… the speed and battery consumption. It can be smaller and slightly more light weight.” But its price, he says, is prohibitive and unrealistic for larger capacity laptops like the MacBook Pro. Huberman doesn’t see Apple only offering flash-based storage on all of its laptops because users want flexibility and adaptability in the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines. “If I were Apple, I would offer options. Just locking someone into one, people are likely to walk away.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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