Western Digital has joined Seagate in suing microdrive disk manufacturer Cornice for patent infringement.

The suit mentions seven Western Digital patents that it claims have been infringed by Cornice's one-inch microdrive, the Storage Element or SE. Both Western Digital and Seagate want Cornice manufacturing to cease and damage payments made.

Western Digital CEO Matt Messengill said: "We will not allow Cornice to unfairly exploit our patents," echoing Seagate president's earlier statement about being, "unfairly attacked". There certainly is a lot of spin in the disk drive business and a lot of hard ball too. In response, Mr. Kow, the country manager for China, Hong Kong and South Asia at Cornice, said: "I'm not in a position to comment. Our legal people are looking into it."

Seagate and Western Digital have joined forces against upstart Cornice, and are individually using IP law to do what some may argue is stifle rather than increase competition. A company with a perfectly good product is going to have a hard time faced with two with deeper pockets and a legal bone to pick.

While competition would normally see companies licence a superior technology, or develop their own, the patent laws are increasingly being used to prevent others from expanding. Or, just as often, to make big sums from larger companies by putting claim to a common piece of technology. Increasingly in the IT industry, it's a case of when the engineers fail, bring in the lawyers.

Background: Cornice's technology
Cornice's Kevin Magenis, president and CEO and ex-Maxtor, said the Cornice Storage Element, "competes with MP3 flash. Our focus is on the high end of the flash market. A GB of it is way too expensive to have in MP3 players. You can have up to 256MB in MP3 players now. It costs $40 for 256MB, $70-80 for 512MB. We sell the 2GB SE for $70 in quantities of 1000."

That's four times the capacity for the same price. And we just know that capacities will double every 18 months or less. A 4GB SE is pretty obviously coming. Companies that have launched products featuring the Cornice SE include Digitalway, iRiver, Rio, Samsung and Thomson. Sony subsidiary Aiwa is also on board. Magenis said, "You can't just shrink a PC drive into a one-inch space." With the SE: "There is one platter and no processor on the drive or cache. The host device takes on most I/O functions."

According to Cornice investor Nokia Ventures: "By fundamentally re-examining the mechanics and electronics of storage devices, Cornice achieved the industry's lowest cost for high-capacity pocketable storage. The Cornice SE requires one-fourth of the components of miniaturised magnetic disk drives, which carry a legacy of several decades of engineering choices.'

Competing products
Seagate's 5GB one-inch ST1 microdrive is such a legacy drive. It has an on-board cache and weighs 19 grams whereas the SE has no such cache and weighs just 14 grams; it's a stripped down drive with added ruggedised design features. This, together with its momentum, makes it formidably strong competition for Seagate's product. Seagate has also launched a 2.5GB flash memory device. It's covering its bases here.

Western Digital doesn't curently manufacture microdrives, neither does it make notebook drives. It is making good progress with SATA drives for servers; its 10K SATA drive is faster than Seagate's 10K SCSI drive.

Magenis said, "Toshiba's one-inch and 0.85 inch drives are announced products but not in production." Hitachi GST also has microdrive products. Maxtor does not. Perhaps it too wants to enter the largest growth segment in the disk drive market and will also sue Cornice shortly?

One can see the appeal of trying to stop Cornice in its tracks whilst Seagate engineers a competing microdrive. What Cornice's happy customers will think of this is probably equally clear.

Western Digital's motivation is not so obvious. With the growth in disk drives coming from consumer electronics, which demands smaller form-factor drives, there is a suspicion it is planning to produce microdrives too. Danny Mauerhofer, Western Digital's PR Manager for Europe said: "We can't really comment on a lawsuit. We'll go into 2.5inch drives before the end of the year. We're aware of the high-volume market for smaller drives, especially in emerging consumer applications."