Disk drive capacity rises, market expectations don’t

  • 11-Apr-2008 02:56 EDT

Higher disk drive capacities from Toshiba may not be enough to spark strong growth in drive usage.

The Toshiba Storage Device Division has boosted the capacity of its automotive-grade disk drive to 80 GB and improved its operating range. The move co­mes as market analysts predict that drives will remain a niche product in the U.S.

Toshiba has doubled the capacity it stores on a single 2.5-in (64-mm) platter. The 80-GB drive also has improved altitude specifications, now operating at 5500 m (18,045 ft). An automotive-grade drive has lower bit densities to make it simpler for heads to locate data in the high-vibration application. They also use custom liquids in drive motors to meet -30 to +85°C (-22 to +185°F) temperature ranges that far exceed the notebook requirements of most 2.5-in drives.

“In Japan, upwards of 80% of the vehicles have drive-based navigation largely because of the complexity of navigating,” said Scott Wright, Product Marketing Manager at Toshiba. “Some of the same problems exist in Europe, where you also have many languages.”

China is also a big market, he added. The U.S. market is currently limited to luxury imports, he said. Though the global market is “growing steadily, it won’t be a wildfire,” he said.

Although many observers once predicted that every car would have a hard drive, analysts now feel that the drive market will remain a niche in automotive. Most Americans do not need maps of the whole country since few of them drive from Oregon to New York and need city maps for distant areas. If only regional maps and points of interest are needed, removable drive units may win out.

“If auto navigation systems also become entertainment units, a lot more of them will need disk drives in the U.S.,” said John Kim, Senior Analyst at TrendFocus. “If they remain navigation alone, CD-ROMs or DVDs will suffice.”

Many predict that automakers will let consumers bring music and movies into vehicles using USB or MP3 connections, eliminating the need for infotainment storage in navigation systems. Therefore, the market may well remain small. “Automotive is about 3% of the market, and we feel it will stay at about that level five years out,” said John Rydning, Storage Analyst at IDC.

Analysts estimate that roughly 500 million disk drives shipped worldwide last year. The disk-drive market is continuing to rise steadily, so even maintaining a small percentage of total shipments represents solid though unspectacular growth.

Rydning noted that the long lead time and support time frames for the auto industry make it a difficult market for drive makers used to supporting PC time frames. However, Wright said Toshiba has committed to the marketplace and has set up operations that focus on both aftermarket and OEM applications.

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