Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Swatting Millipedes

Thanks to correspondent Michael Fitzgerald, Small Times was first with this story yesterday: Big Blue says breakthrough means Millipede may crawl out of lab.

Neil Gordon, president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, gave me some thought-provoking insights, which I added to Michael's story.

    The semiconductor industry is already far along on three well-established, proven and profitable roadmaps: electronic, magnetic and optical, all with their various price points and supply chains. Then, out of the blue comes Millipede? Not anytime soon, Gordon said. He gives the technology nine or 10 years-plus before you'll see a Millipede inside any consumer device.

    Gordon said it'll take much more than research breakthroughs to bring the thing out of the lab. He invoked the poster boy of great technology confined to history's dustbin: Beta-format video recorders. "Just because Beta is a better technology doesn't mean it will be adopted."

    Industries that are built on current storage technologies are already supported by retailers that control the channels of distribution, he said. IBM, no matter how big it is, cannot scrap the chain and will find it difficult to impose itself into a link. There just aren't that many entry points into the market, he said.

    He said that rather than trying to "cannibalize" an existing market, IBM should first make itself its own guinea pig for Millipede.

    "Unless IBM is going to be the initial customer in some niche application, I don't see how they're going to get huge volumes in the next three to four years." More here

After granting me the interview for Small Times, by the way, Neil told me how much he enjoyed reading NanoBot and that he catches it every day. Sorry, Neil. I've outed you as a blog reader. Hope this doesn't diminish your prestige in the eyes of your colleagues.

Anyway, I found Neil's comments refreshing because I've read and edited so many stories about the amazing possibilities of the technology, but very little has been written, in-depth, on how exactly a nanotech-enabled memory or storage product -- from Millipede to MRAM -- is going to penetrate existing, entrenched markets. We've been hyping up the technology and not giving that much coverage to business realities, as if those being "disrupted" will welcome the nano-"disruptors" with open arms.

I think Gordon had a great point in that what makes sense technologically doesn't always work in the real world of business -- no matter whether it's ultimately in their best interests or not. When there's an entrenched system, it's difficult to make it stand aside. Also, we need to take into account what exactly it is the market is demanding. Does the portable device market, for example, really want a ton of memory, or does it just want it to be cheap and low-power?

When it comes to Millipede, flash memory, I suppose, might be the nearest-term application. I've also been reading a great deal about the coming age of RFID. Will nanomemory become a part of this new ubiquitous, sensor-laden age?

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