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Mini HDD to bring new media to cell phones

A combination of two of the most popular portable devices in recent years, mobile phones and digital cameras, has resulted in an even hotter product — the camera phone — generating replacement demand around the globe.

Next comes an attempt to add another marvel, the miniature hard disk drive (HDD), to the cell phone, Reuters reports. If technological hurdles are overcome, a phone that can act as a miniature video player and store some 1,000 songs could hit the market within a year, analysts and industry sources say.

The spread of the technology, which has made possible Apple Computer’s iPod music players, is expected to give a boost to makers of small HDDs such as Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd.

“Demand for hard disk drives totals 300 million units a year. Cell phones sell some 500 million. The sheer size of the potential market excites disk drive makers,” said Yukihiko Shimada, an analyst at UFJ Tsubasa Securities.

Speedy Internet access and a flat-rate tariff are likely to encourage cell phone users to download “rich content” such as CD-quality music, high-resolution video clips and advanced game software, all of which require an ever increasing amount of storage capacity.

“The most likely scenario is that flat-rate services would kick-start the distribution of music and videos to cell phones, which would need hard disk drives,” J.P. Morgan analyst Kazuyo Katsuma told Reuters.

NTT DoCoMo Inc and KDDI Corp, Japan’s largest and second-largest wireless operators, have started offering flat-rate Internet access services in the past year.

“I see some high-end models coming out with HDDs as early as in the current business year (to next March),’” Katsuma said.

Flash memory chips are the primary storage device for cell phones at present, but small HDDs are at least three to four times more cost-efficient.

Toshiba, which supplies 1.8 inch drives for Apple’s original iPod, plans to launch stamp-sized 0.85 inch drives, certified by Guinness World Records as the world’s smallest HDD, later this year, targeting the market for cell phones and other mobile devices.

Hitachi makes matchbook-sized one-inch drives which are used in mini iPods and can be squeezed into cell phones.

Crowding the market further, Seagate Technology HDD Holdings , the world’s largest maker of HDDs, aims to launch its own one-inch drives, possibly by later this year.

Besides boosting storage density, manufacturers face other challenges to create commercially viable HDDs for mobile phones, such as improving the disk drives’ ability to withstand the impact when a handset is dropped onto a hard surface.

As HDDs contain moving parts, they are generally more vulnerable to such shocks than flash memory chips. But there has been some progress by disk drive makers on that front.

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