We look at the future of data storage...

The death of the hard drive?

As the dust settles around Amazon’s new cloud storage service – Cloud Drive – announced yesterday, it’s time to take a look at what this could mean for the future of the hard drive. If people move their data to the cloud, will large hard drives and external drives become a thing of the past?

Cloud storage is not exactly new (see Google Docs, Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive, Flickr and others) but its popularity and the space available to users are expanding rapidly. Just as Moore’s Law suggests that computer chips will keep on getting smaller, it looks like cloud space will keep on getting bigger.

Right now the focus is on music storage and streaming. Amazon’s Cloud Drive stores MP3 files purchased through the Amazon.com website for free, without putting them against a user’s storage limit; in the US, its Cloud Player streams them over the web or Android smartphones. Google and Apple are working on music streaming as well. Spotify, Last.fm and other services already stream a user’s choice of music for a fee.

In Amazon’s case, it presumably hopes all of this will encourage customers to make repeat purchases. But the firm must surely have an eye beyond music or user-made photos and video. Television and film will be next. Perhaps games.

Ultraviolet, a digital movie locker, is aiming to do just this. It’s a service supported by some of the biggest names in technology – Adobe, Cisco, Microsoft, HP, NetFlix, Tesco and others (with notable absences such as Apple and Disney, which will have their own plans). It will offer storage, streaming and downloading to physical products and should come out this year.

So once media that traditionally takes up large volumes of hard drive space is online, what do we need hard drives for? Perhaps a simple flash drive, able to store an operating system and any files that haven’t been uploaded yet, is all that will be needed at the core of a computer.

Many users are understandably eager to back up their data and this should continue to be a selling point for hard drives for some time. However good an online storage facility is, there’s always the chance that a server could go down at a vital moment. There’s a certain security in knowing your data is on an external drive or copied to DVD. Of course if the house burns down you’ll be hoping the cloud can save you again – and it is very good for back-ups.

But in a world where physical media ceases to exist for the most part, what will happen to the product itself? Companies are already fighting over online space – Google, Amazon, Apple and co all want you to see them as a first port of online storage. Some of them want to lock you into their services. You might start off buying lots of iTunes-encoded songs, only to end up preferring Amazon and finding it won’t stream them for you. Playing a particular file could become tough for those who aren’t computer-savvy.

Issues that are old-hat for the music industry and currently being explored by the book world with the rise of Kindle and other ebook devices will become more prominent. As more people own only virtual products, it will get harder to lend books or films, or music, until clever alternatives are found or DRM is discarded. Retailers and users will no longer be able to benefit from second-hand sales (of course the creative industries won’t mind this so much, seeing as they only get paid first time around). Piracy will increase. Again.

But we can’t go back. Whether the hard drive as it is today lives or dies, who knows. But the cloud will certainly be here tomorrow.

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