Lucas Mearian

Did you miss the magic? It's right there in your data storage.

December 20, 2013 3:16 PM EST
Let's consider how we’ve become numb to the breadth with which technology has advanced. It's moving so fast that we barely have time to appreciate one advancement before the next one comes along.
 
It wasn't always like that. The black and white television was first demonstrated at the World's Fair in 1939. It was almost three decades later before most homes had a color television in 1967.
 
In the early 1990s, I carried a lunch-box size bag with a tetherd mobile phone that got lousy service and cost an arm and a leg. Today, I carry a $199 iPhone with more processing power than the $150,000 Apollo Guidance Computer.
 
Great comparison, right? Of course, most of us have probably heard that analogy. 
 
A few months ago, data storage vendor SanDisk sent me one of their latest storage devices, a wireless thumb drive. It blew my mind.
 
At first, I marveled at the hidden antenna technology that had become so miniaturized and high-speed that it could transmit millions of bits of data per second through the air from my computer or smart phone to a thumb drive in my pocket. Conversely, I could stream a movie from that thumb drive to my phone or tablet, never burdening my mobile device with the enormous capacity that a movie consumes.
 
Then, I noticed the thumb drive had a tiny slot for a removable microSD card – a storage device smaller than my thumbnail and slightly thinner than a credit card. I popped the microSD card out, and the number printed on it gave me pause.
 
The number was 32 followed by "GB".
 
I've covered data storage for 13 years, and over that time, co-workers would periodically needle me over being saddled with a boring news beat. I'd always retort that it was one of the most intersting beats I could imagine. I also cover 3D printing, and I don't consider that any more amazing than data storage.
 
MicroSD, SD card
 
(On the left is a 16MB SD card sold by Samsung in the early 2000s. On the right, a 32GB microSD card sold today by SanDisk)
 
This is how I see it. On that microSD card that is half the size of a postage stamp, there are thirty-two gigabytes of capacity. “So what,” you say? A gigabyte is roughly one billion bytes of data.
 
I have an advertisement pinned to the outside of my office cubicle from the mid-1980s. It’s a 10MB hard disk drive offered for the bargain price of $3,398. Today, you can buy that 32GB microSD card for $23.
 
Again, you may say, “well, that’s just the storage cousin of Moore’s Law and economies of scale. Technology advances, and the more you produce of something, the cheaper you can sell it."
 
You see? You just missed the magic -- the science that has created something so simple, and yet, has had such a profound effect on your life. Each bit-storing transistor inside that solid-state storage in your smartphone, in that microSD card, is about the size of an few atoms. The process for laying out the circuitry in a solid-state drive (SSD) is lithography, and today it's measure in nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.
 
Because of that microscopic circuitry, you can carry around tiny devices that store billions, even trillions of bytes of data -- that's a volume of information that just a couple of decades ago would have required the buildings of the Library of Congress to store.
 
Today, we carry smartphones with tens of gigabytes of capacity and hard drives smaller than a deck of playing cards that have three, even four terabytes of capacity and never stop to think: A terabyte. That's about a trillion bytes of data.
 
To illustrate the difference between a million and a billion, consider this: one million seconds is 11 days, one billion seconds is about 31.7 years. And a trillion seconds? Well, that’s 31,700 years.
 
Think about that the next you pull your smartphone out of your pocket.
 
 

(On the left is an RA81 disk drive beside a current 2.5-in, 2TB laptop hard drive. The R81, which was manufactured by Digital Equipment Corp. in 1982, was a marvel in its day. It offered up to 456MB of capacity, four times that of the R80, its predecessor. On the right, the 32GB microSD card)