In the 18 years since IBM created the Winchester hard disk--a sealed disk drive that stores data on metal platters--engineers at companies such as Quantum Corp. have made astounding strides. The first drives stored 35 megabytes of data on 14-inch platters. Today, disk makers cram 85 megabytes on 2 1/2-in. platters. By next year, 1.8-in. drives will be available.
But there are limits in creating the tiny motors, platters, and recording heads to build ever-smaller drives. So a new technology is emerging that goes where "rotating memory," such as hard disks, can't. It's called the memory card--a bunch of memory chips crammed into a plastic cartridge about the size of a credit card.
NEW SPIN. NEC Corp. was the first to use the technology. Now, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Poqet Computer Corp. have it in their tiny "palmtop" PCs. The cards are smaller and lighter than disk drives, and retrieve data faster. With no moving parts, they can survive harsh environments such as factories. And they use little power, so a palmtop can run off two AA batteries.
As the market for palmtops and other tiny PCs grows, so will sales of memory cards. One researcher, SRI International Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif., says the market could swell from 4 million units this year to 52 million in 1993. The business got a big boost last year when two major groups of computer and electronics makers agreed on a standard for card size and software. IBM, Compaq, and Fujitsu are among the dozens who back it.
But disk-drive makers aren't about to lose sleep over memory cards. One reason is price. A 4-megabyte card now costs $720, compared with as little as $150 for a 40-megabyte hard disk drive. And in memory cards, 4 megabytes is maximum capacity now. But 16-megabyte cards are expected by 1993, and 40-megabyte cards are likely by 1996.
FLASH CARDS. That has chipmakers diving into the memory-card business. Intel Corp. is leading the way with cards that use so-called flash memory. Unlike other chips used in memory cards, flash chips don't need a battery to keep them from losing their memory. And flash promises to be cheaper: By 1996, claims Richard D. Pashley, general manager of Intel's Memory Components Div., a 40-megabyte flash card will cost about the same as a 40-megabyte disk. Intel's Japanese rivals, including Fujitsu, Mitsubishi Electric, NEC, and Toshiba, are ramping up production of flash memories.
Still, hard disks aren't about to disappear, particularly when buyers of desktop PCs are asking for greater disk capacities. But in portables--where space comes at a premium--and in rugged systems, memory cards may knock disk drives out. Unless, of course, those disk engineers perfect the half-inch Winchester.