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Hard Drives In Cell Phones Talked Up By Chipmakers

Some chipmakers are exploring how to incorporate drives into phones, though not everyone thinks that will happen soon.
SAN JOSE, Calif.--Cellular phones are poised to take yet another step in silicon integration by packing hard-disk drives into their electronics. At least three companies are at some stage of exploring such designs, though several sources expressed doubts about when and at what pace hard disks will appear in cell phones.

The possibility of hard drives coming to the 500 million-unit-per-year cell market is particularly attractive to Agere Systems Inc., which generates a third of its revenue in storage silicon. "We can see a convergence of hard-disk drives and mobile electronics," says Matthew Kendall, a senior product-marketing manager.

The company is expected today to reveal a line of chips geared for 1-inch and smaller drives as a cost- and space-saving measure intended to get the small drives into handsets.

This is a "reasonable thing for Agere to do," says Will Strauss of analyst firm Forward Concepts. "This won't become a major part of the cell-phone market, but it could be a lucrative one."

Separately, 1-inch-drive startup Cornice Inc. has disclosed that its next-generation drives will hand off some processing to a host CPU as part of a simplified design for consumer systems. The drives will appear in several high-end cell phones next year, according to Cornice.

Agere is expected to reveal in a few weeks a deal with Cornice that may involve its parts. "We have a relationship with them," confirms Curt Bruner, chief technology officer of Cornice.

Engineers have some technical concerns, but the biggest problem is determining whether enough handsets are ready to adopt drives to justify the costs, Bruner says. At a recent conference on camera phones, Mike Butler, a director of business strategy in Nokia's imaging group, said that disk drives still draw too much power and are too unreliable to be embedded in mainstream cell phones.

"Our feeling is when the first phones come out with embedded hard drives, they will be so compelling that other major providers will quickly follow," Bruner says.

"It's pretty clear in the long run [hard-drive] support will be required," says Avner Goren, manager of the Omap line of cellular processors at Texas Instruments Inc. However, he says TI isn't ready to reveal its plans in this area.

Agere already supplies parts to 1-inch-drive makers Hitachi Global Storage Technologies and startup GS MagicStor. Strauss of Forward Concepts says its baseband chips are used by Samsung and NEC.