Data storage gets image makeover

/ Source: The Associated Press

Amid the sea of sleek new cell phones and eye-catching high-definition televisions, a typically hidden and humbler technology is preparing to make its biggest splash yet at the world's largest annual consumer technology show.

In fact, the bold new marketing will begin right at the Las Vegas airport. A giant sculpture built from thousands of photographs will greet visitors arriving for next week's International Consumer Electronics Show: "When you lose your files, you lose a part of yourself."

It's part of a larger plan by Seagate Technology, the world's top maker of hard disk drives, to convince consumers that safekeeping digital data is now an important aspect of their everyday lives.

Hard drives and their growing storage capacities are gaining importance as vaults for digital media as people increasingly stuff digital video recorders with favorite TV programs, audio players with digital music and computers with photo memories.

Other companies are also trying to convey the same message, selling storage products and services to cater to the mushrooming personal digital collections.

Hitachi will debut the industry's first terabyte hard drive, selling it for $400 by March as an add-on for computers. It will also produce a version that could be built into digital video recorders such as those from TiVo Inc. and rivals.

A terabyte can hold the text of roughly 1 million books; 1,000 hours of standard-definition video; 250 hours of high-definition video; or a quarter million songs — that's two year's of music without hearing the same song twice, according to Hitachi.

It would be the largest-capacity drive today.

"The ease with which we're creating data today, whether it's e-books, music, video or text, means there will be a digital home ... and storage will be at the center of it," said Doug Pickford, a director of market and product strategy for Hitachi's storage division.

Hitachi will also demonstrate a storage system that has sophisticated searching capabilities and can function as a standalone data appliance without the strappings of an entire computer operating system. Hitachi and the product's co-developer, server technology company Blue Peach, hope to sell it to traditional electronics makers to incorporate into home products.

If built into an audio jukebox, for example, users would be able to design their own browsing genres, say "mellow" or "party mix," based on an initial sample song chosen by the listener.

The advanced algorithms would then automatically assign similar songs to the category, creating an easy way for users to develop playlists, said Steven King, vice president of sales and marketing at Hitachi's Embedded Business Group.

Seagate, Hewlett-Packard Co., D-Link Corp. and others will display media servers designed as personal repositories for managing vast amounts of digital files. The home servers provide automatic data backups and allow family and friends to access some files remotely over the Internet. Hoping to expand their customer base beyond technophiles, vendors say the latest products will be easier to set up.

The reason Seagate's consumer push could be considered audacious is that hard drives normally aren't very sexy. After all, they are simply magnetic spinning platters that users don't notice until they fail — personal memories still on them.

Seagate has hired TBWA/Chiat/Day — the advertising agency that has been behind ads for Sony Corp., Apple Computer Inc. and other top brands — to help spark interest.

It has also revamped its consumer storage products with sleeker designs, using brushed aluminum casings instead of painted plastic, for instance. Ads and product packaging will tout how hard drives are used rather than promoting simply their capacities.

"People don't care about the hardware," said Jim Druckrey, the head of Seagate's consumer products, "but they have a lot of emotional attachment to their content."