A couple of years is all that has been needed for flash memory key fob drives to pretty much take over the portable data transfer market. They range from 128MB up to 512MB with capacity increasing steadily. Prices range from the affordable at the entry level to quite expensive at the upper end. But then there's no competition in the small size, high-capacity, portable and robust storage market.

Actually that's no longer true. And Scott Holt, executive VP for sales and marketing at US start-up Cornice, has the proof in his shirt pocket. It's a MPIO HS100 1.5GB USB storage device. Plug it in to your notebook or desktop and it behaves just like a USB flash drive - only its not flash memory; it's got more capacity, and it's a hard drive. And it costs $199, which is much less than a 1GB flash drive would cost. (That's £149.99 in the UK from IHaveToHaveIt.)

Holt says, "Flash costs $40 for 256MB (for a flash drive manufacturer), $70-80 for 512MB. We sell 2GB for $70 in quantities of 1000." That's four times the capacity for the same price. "We want to stay above the mainstream of flash - 256MB today - 4 to 6 times in capacity at a 40 percent premium in price."

Can this Cornice-built hard drive, or storage element as Cornice calls it, compete with flash USB drives? It is small. The drive itself is a 1 inch form factor, less than a quarter inch thick. It is robust and will survive a 1 metre drop test. Future models, such as a 3GB drive, will survive a 2 metre drop test. It uses less power than flash. The drive is spun up only when data needs to be accessed. When it's spun down it consumes virtually no power; needing something in the 40 microamps area.

Holt says Cornice isn't interested in building lower capacity models. He says Cornice is happy to leave the low capacity area to flash. Although flash will increase in capacity, so too will the Cornice product with, "a 50 percent areal density increase year-on-year with cost reductions. Expect vertical recording to extend inceases in capacity."

That suggests a 10GB unit will arrive around 2008/9, unless vertical (perpendicular) recording boosts capacity faster.

How is it done?
The main thing Cornice has done is to strip cost out of the unit. Its core is a single glass-based disk platter made by Japanese company Hoya. Holt says, "Hoya builds 1.8” and 1” media and is the world's largest media manufacturer for 2.5” drives." There is only one read/write head. All the processing is done by the host computer. There is no embedded processor in the unit as there is with ordinary hard drives. There is no cache. By stripping out complexity, meaning components, and re-architecting the electronics for simpler operation, the unit's manufacturing cost is much less.

There are two main markets for the device. The bigger one consists of the serried ranks of portable CE - consumer electronics - devices. The second one is the business data storage market, what Holt refers to as 'bit buckets'.

If Cornice can keep ahead of the leading edge of flash development, and retain its 4 times capacity for a 40 percent price premium, then its technology seems well set for the future.

Suppose the big hard drive manufacturers follow suit? Holt reckons Cornice has a 2 year advantage because it's not just about shrinking drives down to 1 inch. The electronics have to be redesigned to get the cost out. Also the drive casing, and the unit it is embedded in, have to be engineered for robustness.

What could you do with it?
Already Migo sells a flash drive which can hold an entire computing environment. Travel with it to another business, plug it into a spare desktop or notebook PC and you can work on your Word documents, Outlook mail and PowerPoint slides. But this uses flash technology limited to 512MB. Imagine what could be done with four times the capacity, with a 2GB Cornice storage element embedded inside such a device.

This new kind of personal, portable storage could enable a new way of working. You would no longer need to necessarily travel with your own notebook computer. You just use the portable storage unit, plug it into a spare computer at the place you are visiting and use that platform to host your computing environment with your shortcuts, your data and your applications. The device is bootable and, in effect, you take your computing world around with you.

Just when we thought the low end disk market had been closed off by flash, Cornice comes along to prove us wrong by moving the dividing line between flash memory and hard drives. What goes around, comes around.