First there was the PC era, then the Web era. Now consumers are in a hard-drive era, at least when it comes to digital media. Instead of storing their growing collections of digital...

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First there was the PC era, then the Web era. Now consumers are in a hard-drive era, at least when it comes to digital media.

Instead of storing their growing collections of digital photos, music and video online, consumers are buying millions of iPods, TiVos and other hard-drive-based devices to store it all at home.

Within five years, the average tech-savvy home will have 10 to 20 hard drives, according to one drive manufacturer, although analysts believe that’s optimistic given the competition from other storage devices.

Portable music players have become one of the best-selling consumer electronic devices in history, and a wave of new models will be introduced this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The proliferation of hard-drive-based devices is also blurring the line between computers and personal electronics, adding the storage capacity of computers to household products like TVs, phones and video recorders.

“I have over 10 already in my home,” said Bill Healy, senior vice president of product strategy and marketing for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, a San Jose, Calif.-based hard-drive maker.

Hard driven

A few milestones in the history of the hard-disk drive.

IBM introduces first magnetic hard-disk storage system. The size of two refrigerators, it stored 5 megabytes and cost $10,000 per megabyte.

Seagate Technology creates the first hard-disk drive for microcomputers, a 5-megabyte drive.

TiVo is founded to develop first digital video recorder.

1999: IBM develops ultrasmall Microdrive hard drive.

Apple introduces iPod.

2004: Microsoft introduces Portable Media Center with video screen.

Hard-drive-based music-player sales to grow 150 percent to 20 million units, according S.G. Cowen forecast.

Sources: Hitachi, Computer History Museum, Apple, S.G. Cowen, TiVo

— Brier Dudley

Inside Healy’s home are three PCs: one for him, his wife and his son. It also has two external hard drives for backing up data, two digital cameras with hard drives inside, a new digital video recorder that stores TV shows on a hard drive and three portable music players.

Just around the corner are televisions with a built-in hard drive, more drive-based cameras and small handheld computer organizers with built-in drives.

Healy expects that by the time his 13-year-old starts driving, cars may have a hard drive as well, perhaps similar to an airplane “black box” recorder.

When the teenager pulls into the driveway, “I’ll be watching TV, up will pop a window on my TV, downloading data from the car,” Healy said. It may report that the car was driven within the speed limit “but went to a park and idled for a half-hour or an hour.”

IBM pioneered disk storage systems in the 1950s.

Five years ago, the company helped usher in the iPod craze by developing the Microdrive, a matchbook-size hard drive that can now store up to 4 gigabytes on its 1-inch platter. That’s enough room for 4,000 minutes of music or 4,000 high-resolution photos.

IBM and Hitachi, which bought IBM’s drive business in 2003, have sold 5 million Microdrives in five years, many as the primary component in Apple’s iPod “mini” music player.

Toshiba produces the larger, 1.8-inch drive used in the standard iPod.

The 2005 Consumer Electronics Show

The annual mega trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center opens with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates’ keynote Wednesday night and runs through Sunday.

More than 120,000 buyers and sellers of computers, electronics and related products from around the world are expected to attend.

The show is based at the Las Vegas Convention Center, but it’s so big it’s sprawling into several nearby facilities, including the Las Vegas Hilton, Alexis Park and Renaissance hotels.

More than 2,400 companies are exhibiting products and previewing technology that will be sold in the coming year. Industry leaders such as Gates and Intel Chief Executive Craig Barrett will give speeches on industry trends.

How much?
Passes are $75 to $899, depending on how many informational sessions you attend.

Oh, my:
Gates isn’t the only big name. To attract attention, companies are hosting parties, receptions and concerts with celebrities such as Jackie Chan and Rod Stewart.

More info:

— Brier Dudley

About 20 percent of Hitachi’s drives are now built for consumer electronics devices instead of computers.

“The PC is really just a foundation stone that has got the citizens of the world comfortable with digital information storing,” he said.

Healy is one of around 130,000 industry players heading to Las Vegas this week for the consumer show. He’ll announce new drives and pitch his company’s vision of a “har0d-drive lifestyle.”

Other hard-drive-based devices likely to be displayed at the show include variations of the 20-gigabyte, Microsoft-developed Portable Media Center video and music player; digital camcorders such as JVC’s 160-gigabyte model; Sony’s new 500-gigabyte high-definition video recorder; and 1-terabyte media-storage systems such as the $2,999 Niveus A/V Storage Server.

Yet some analysts say the proliferation of hard drives will slow as cheaper, simpler and more durable storage technologies emerge.

The primary contender is flash memory, a system based on thin and relatively cheap chips used in digital-camera memory cards.

With multi-gigabyte flash-memory products appearing and prices falling, it’s only a matter of time before they displace the smaller capacity hard drives, said Rob Enderle, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based industry analyst.

Flash memory uses less power, generates less heat and is more durable, so it’s more appropriate for portable devices such as music players, he said.

Flash capacity is also increasing to the point where it can store more music than most people want on a portable player.

“How much storage do you really need for your music?” Enderle said. “For music it’s hard to argue that you need anything more than 5 gigabytes.”

Complexity may also slow the proliferation of hard drives in the home. Adding devices to a home network can challenge even the technically astute, according to Dave Reinsel, storage research director at IDC, a Framingham, Mass., research firm.

Reinsel said homes may start to have 10 drives but he believes 20 is unlikely.

A more likely scenario is that homes will increasingly be set up like businesses, with a centralized storage system — perhaps based on a single, large hard drive — that serves data to devices on a local network.

“All these isolated pockets of storage need to be consolidated into one pool of local storage,” he said.

A simple, low-cost solution to create the digital home remains a holy grail for the computer and consumer-electronics industries. Among the companies searching for the answer are Microsoft, Sony and Intel, as well as thousands of smaller companies and players in the cable, entertainment and telecom industries.

“At this point the dynamics are in place, the players are in place, it’s just a matter of who is going to execute,” said Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s going to be a fabulous battle, there’s going to be a lot of money spent, a lot of money wasted.”

Schadler said it may be 10 years before it’s clear whose solution prevails.

In the meantime, companies such as Hitachi will be selling millions of little hard drives to consumer electronics companies.

Of the roughly 300 million hard drives sold by all manufacturers in 2004, around 38 million were for consumer-electronics products, Reinsel said.

He expects consumer-electronics drive sales will grow to more than 90 million by 2008. That’s up from fewer than 250,000 when IDC began tracking the segment in 1998.

One limiting factor is that consumers may increasingly use the Internet as a repository.

Ironically, drive sales may also taper off as companies create new, multifunction devices.

Consumers may buy one device instead of two when TVs start coming with built-in storage devices and cellphones double as cameras and music players.

“We have all this demand for iPods and MP3 players,” Reinsel said. “But if we have MP3 players in cellphones, do we need the iPod or do we put them in cellphones?”

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or