Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Of head-butts and terabytes

Here's a cool piece on trends in storage from my buddy Kevin Maney, who covers technology for USA Today. Enjoy!


So you're on an airliner over Butte, Mont., which, without the "e" would be Butt, which in turn suddenly makes you think of Zinedine Zidane's World Cup head-butt and wonder whether head-butts are common in soccer because maybe soccer players don't use their hands even when fighting.
You'd like to search the Internet to find out. Except there's no Wi-Fi on your domestic flight and there's not likely to be airborne Wi-Fi in the near future even though JetBlue says it's going to try. You just have to go on wondering about soccer head-butts, leaving a maddening hole in your life.

How to avoid this kind of situation in coming years? Well, you probably will be able to download the entire Internet to a laptop before you get on a plane.

It seems preposterous. It sounds like saying you might eat a refrigerator full of food before a trip so you don't have to stop at restaurants for a couple of days.

But this week, Freescale introduced the first commercial memory chip based on a new technology called magnetic random access memory, or MRAM. It's a big step toward putting unimaginable amounts of data on something smaller than an Advil tablet.

Storage capacity is improving at a phenomenal 60% to 70% every year, and other amazing new technologies, such as holographic storage, will bring yet greater leaps in the next decade.

As a result, entrepreneurs are thinking about how they might use almost limitless storage to solve real-world problems. And this is how I came to be sitting across from Rakesh Mathur as he suggested that we could download the whole Internet and then search it — instead of searching the Internet and then downloading what we find. He is launching a company, Webaroo, to eventually help people do that.

Mathur, who in the 1990s co-founded recommendation-engine Junglee and then sold it to, had gone to Alaska to photograph the aurora borealis. He was in his car, freezing, bored, miles from the nearest Wi-Fi, and wishing he had the Internet.

He thought about the trends in storage — the kind of thing a tech entrepreneur does while waiting in a car near the Arctic Circle. IBM made the first commercial hard drive in 1956 — 50 disks, each 24 inches wide, that held a total of 5 megabytes. By 1980, one 5.25-inch disk held 5 megabytes. In 1991, a 2.5-inch disk held 100 megabytes.

Fast-forward to this year, and Seagate introduced a hard drive that holds 750 gigabytes and costs about $500. No technology in history has seen that kind of price-performance improvement in so short a time.

And the pace is picking up. MRAM inventor Stuart Parkin of IBM Research once told me that by early next decade, an MRAM-based iPod might hold 10,000 movies instead of 10,000 songs. In June, Israeli start-up Matteris unveiled a 5.25-inch storage disk with a holographic coating that can hold a terabyte of data. The entire Library of Congress is about 20 terabytes. You could put it all on 20 disks that could fit in a shoebox.

Mathur told me that he was thinking about these trends, and about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams' fictional reference device that holds all the universe's knowledge and does not rely on searching the Internet because Adams never imagined Wi-Fi in space. Why, Mathur thought, couldn't laptops or Treos work that way?

"We could use storage and memory to solve the problem of connectivity," he says.

Now, nobody knows how big the Web is — maybe 1,000 terabytes, which is a petabyte. No device will be able to hold that much for a long time, and by then, the Web will be bigger. But Mathur designed Webaroo to grab and store the most useful slices of the Web.

As storage increases, the slices can get bigger. You might never store all of the Web but enough to almost always find what you want. If you search Google for "head-butt red card," you get 211,000 results. Pretty much anything you'd need to know is in the first 20.

A service like Webaroo is only a subset of what the storage boom means to everyday life. We've already seen some really cool benefits, such as the iPod and TiVo. Fifteen years ago, nobody would've imagined that we'd store all our music and hours of video on hard disks and memory chips.

Technologists such as Gordon Bell of Microsoft Research believe we'll use storage gadgets to record video and audio of every moment of our lives. Why would you want to? Most people never even look at most of the digital photos they take, much less review video of all their waking hours. (And then would you have video of you reviewing the video? That's weird.)

One possibility is you'd use that information for personal data mining. If you get hives, you might have software sort your personal life file to look for patterns that suggest what food or activity seems to bring the hives on.

Then again, imagine the privacy issues if someone hacks your personal-life recorder. It would make the incident with Paris Hilton's T-Mobile Sidekick seem quaint.

But, who knows. The trends in storage are so mind-blowing, any predictions of how it will affect life will probably be as off-base as the 1970s idea that home computers would be used by housewives to store recipes.

Mathur's idea, though, sounds plausible. And if you could store the Web and look up head-butts while in the air over Montana, you'd find that two Roma players were sent off for head-butting in a famous 1960s soccer game in Europe. And Ariel Ortega of Argentina got thrown out for head-butting the Dutch goalie in a 1998 World Cup game. So this does seem to be a rather nasty habit of soccer players.