It’s All About Content: Why Tablets Help Hard Drives

To paraphrase Mark Twain: “Rumors of the hard drive’s death have been greatly exaggerated — again.” If you follow computer industry news, you’ve likely heard the story: hard drive sales are in jeopardy because hordes of users are replacing PCs that use hard drives for storage with tablets that use flash memory for storage.

But given the widespread adoption of tablets like Apple’s iPad, coupled with everyone under the sun vying for a piece of the tablet market, it’s easy to see that consumption of content will continue to explode. And that’s the point — with that explosion comes the aftershock of storage demand. As more users adopt tablets as mainstream, more storage from hard drives will be needed from the backend servers and in the cloud to serve them. So while flash is appealing for use in consumption devices like tablets, let’s not let this obscure the main fact about tablets in the big picture of the storage market, which is that tablets aren’t hurting hard drive sales — in fact, they are helping.

When examining the storage market, we can look at present and future projections for HDD unit sales and by volume of capacity (in petabytes) shipped as per the chart below:

But we can also look at the data trends for consumption. In 2005, the world generated 150 exabytes (one billion gigabytes) of data. This year, it’s estimated that we’ll create and store 1,200 exabytes, and in 2020, a staggering 35,000 exabytes!1 That’s 30x growth over the next 10 years.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve heard in the HDD world that the sky is falling. About a decade ago, MP3 player manufacturers shrank the device footprint and switched from hard drive storage to flash. Not long after, smartphones came on the scene, and those in the know posted that users would discard their PCs in favor of smartphones and, again, the hard drive industry would suffer. But the sky never fell, and neither MP3 players nor smartphones caused hard drive sales to decline. In fact, sales actually grew 14 percent between 2000 and 2005, and continued to grow 12 percent from 2005 to 2010.1 The reality is that the more content consumption devices hit the market, the greater the demand for hard drive storage capacity, even when it is not local to the device.

Now let’s delve into some logic. Consumers didn’t discard their PCs for smartphones, and they aren’t going to chuck their PCs for tablets — the devices just aren’t that interchangeable. People are using their tablets for content consumption: to watch movies, browse the Internet, check email, play games, etc. But they aren’t really using their tablets for content creation, and certainly don’t rely on them for heavy duty applications. So logically, it follows that most people who own a tablet need a PC as well.

But just for argument’s sake, let’s assume users worldwide tossed out their PCs and replaced them with tablets. Right out of the gate, we would have a capacity problem. The bottom line is that all the flash in the world isn’t close to enough to meet the worldwide need for storage capacity, and that fact will remain true for a very, very long time. Here are some numbers to consider: In 2010, all the content created and replicated grew past a staggering zettabyte (one trillion gigabytes), and is expected to reach 1.8 zettabytes in 2011. Yet in 2010, the entire NAND flash memory industry manufactured just over 11 exabytes (you would need 1000 exabytes to equal every one zettabyte) of storage. Even with forecasts predicting that NAND flash production capacity will grow to 21 exabytes in 2011, only nine percent of that, or about two exabytes, will go to the flash memory used in tablets.2 That’s not nearly enough capacity to meet demand.

Tablets with flash storage simply don’t have the onboard capacity to store the massive volumes of digital content that users want to access — anytime, anywhere. So all that data needs to be stored externally, in either local attached, networked or cloud storage — and all those formats rely on hard drives. So, once again, tablet popularity doesn’t hurt hard drive sales. In fact, some pundits see tablets as a net gain for hard drives: “For now, IDC sees the rise in demand for iPads/tablets as additive … for HDD makers in terms of the growth of information and digital content that has to be stored somewhere. That content and information consumed by these devices most likely will be stored on hard disk drives in data centers, cloud infrastructures, or on USB or network-attached personal storage devices in homes.”3

So in the end, even if some users do opt to replace their PCs with tablets, hard drives will still be in high demand. Content will continue its growth and storage will always be needed. Because nobody is saying worldwide demand for storage capacity is decreasing. Now that would be an ugly rumor!

Mark Wojtasiak is a Senior Manager in Product Marketing with Seagate Technology. For the past 5 years, Mark has been based in Seagate’s Shakopee, MN, design center where Seagate lives and breathes enterprise storage. Though Mark works in the middle of everything enterprise, his role at Seagate enables him to listen, learn, discuss, and share anything and everything related to storage. From the traditional desktop to external drives to the cloud, he develops insights on the latest storage technology, trends, customers, and users.

1 IDC Digital Universe Study, June 2011

2 Gartner, Forecast: NAND Flash Supply and Demand, Worldwide, 1Q10-4Q12, 3Q11 Update, page 2, Table 15-3, September 2011


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