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The Great Decoupler.

After twenty years, what can one say about Steve Jobs that's new? He's a genius? Hmmm. He's a pain? Well . . . how about this: He's good for the storage industry.

When Jobs decoupled every storage option but a floppy from the original Apple Macintosh, it immediately stimulated a market for third-party Mac storage devices. By spec'ing a SCSI bus from the get-go, he ensured that those devices would adhere to reasonable standards, and that connecting them to a host would approach the ideal of "plug-and-play". Also, if one compares them to PC peripherals, Jobs made sure that they'd be expensive.

In his subsequent Macs, what seemed at first to be a mistake (the excision of the floppy) actually added value to the add-on storage business by encouraging users to seek out higher-capacity options. And his ongoing encouragement of greaterspeed, wider-band interfaces like IEEE 1394 ("FireWire") and USB, has empowered Mac users to take advantage of every advance in transfer rates and raw capacity.

Jobs did make one spectacular storage goof ten years ago, when he equipped his NeXT computer with only a 650MB 5.25-inch MO drive. Like the NeXT itself, which was grandly optimized for graphics but for not much else, the MO drive of 1990 was too-much/too-soon. It had far more capacity than even the "power" users of the day could regularly fill; and notwithstanding Jobs's endorsement, there was no mass-market for a third-party storage peripheral that carried a price tag ($2,500) nearly as large as that of its host computer.

But third-party storage for the Mac has been and is a good business to be in: storage devices lined every aisle at the Macworld Expo in January.

Archos Technology showed a $289 USB CD-RW drive with near-state-of-the-art specs (8/4/24 speeds) in a small (6in. x 5in. x lin.) and light (18 oz.) package. LaCie had something comparable in external dimensions, with slightly lower performance (4 x 4 x 24) for more money ($399). But whereas Archos was only promising FireWire connectivity later this year, LaCie is delivering it.

As I wrote in last month's issue ("Ring Out The Old, Ring In The New", page 6), I've stopped using 3.5-inch MO. But the format works as spec'd; the drives are all Ultra SCSI now, and Fujitsu was busy promoting them at Macworld. Its external 640MB drive lists for $299; the 1.3GB version for $100 more.

The Mac has long been the computer of choice for working with large files that graphics, audio and video applications generate. So external HDDs and RAIDs were also prominent at Macworld.

LaCie had portable HDDs on display, for both USB and FireWire, in 10GB, 20GB and 30GB packages for $399, $499 and $799 respectively. Que!'s portable FireWire (only) HDDs started at $299 for 6GB and $379 for 10GB, with prices rising in $100 increments to 20GB and 30GB. The Que! drives get their electricity through the bus, and the shells have plug-in connectors that let users concatenate up to five of them in any combination.

Calling its RAID "the first and only complete Fire Wire Storage Area Network," a company called SANcube offered (what else?) a cube- shaped peripheral starting at $1,499 for 90GB. A "two-user" 135GB version retails for $1,899; a "three-user" 180GB cube for $2,699; and two "four-user" cubes, with 270GB for $3,899 and 450GB for $6,099.

Tape systems weren't as in-your-face as disk systems at Macworld; but Ecrix offered attendees its $1,199 VXA-l FireWire drives which accommodate native tape capacities up to 33GB. (The fact that external and internal SCSI versions of the same tape drive were priced $100 and $300 lower, does suggest how much it can cost a third-party vendor to ramp up support for FireWire.)

Among the offbeat devices at Macworld, Archos showed a $349 portable MP3 audio player with a built-in 2.5-inch 6GB HDD that they buy from IBM, Hitachi and Toshiba. Iomega is also buying that IBM drive for the removable [MISSING TEXT FROM ORIGINAL PUBLISHER]dge system, called "Peerless at it's promising to deliver by mid-year. The desktop base-station, with FireWire and USB interfaces, will retail for $249. The disks, which plug into it vertically, will sell for $129 (5GB), $159 (10GB), and $199 (20GB). "As soon as we can get them," an Iomega spokesman told me, "we'll offer Peerless with IBM's smaller 1.8-inch drives inside."

Several Macworld exhibitors, including LaCie and Formac, were offering DVD-RAM drives in portable configurations (La Cie's FireWire drive, for example, retails for $749). But DVD-RAM disks can be read only in DVD-RAM drives.

So perhaps the most intriguing storage news at Macworld was Jobs's announcement that next-generation Macs will come equipped with Pioneer's DVD-R. Jobs calls it a "SuperDrive"--which is not far-fetched: it reads and writes all CD form-factor media; it plays all premastered DVD form-factor media; and it records Pioneer's write-once DVD-R media that--the specs promise--can be read by most existing DVD readers and players.

Thus I repeat: Jobs has been and continues to be good for the storage industry. He encourages third-party sales, broadens the base of the market, and is still promoting healthy competition and profits for storage peripheral manufacturers and vendors--even at the low end.

Yes, the low end is still being served: Imation is filling the most basic storage niche in the Apple universe with a USB floppy drive targeted, of course, at those Macs which Jobs long ago decreed should have no rotating storage onboard at all. It lists for $180, which is almost ten times what a bare floppy drive costs at any discount electronics retailer--higher, even, than a modest-capacity HDD.

But hey! Macs and their peripherals have always been expensive. Besides, this floppy drive is fully consistent with Jobs's total Macintosh vision. As Imation's spec-sheet noted, it comes in your choice of "eleven easy-to-install colors at no additional charge. You can easily customize the look of your floppy drive to match your computer your office or your mood."
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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event; MacWorld Exposition show
Author:Glatzer, Hal
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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