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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: All The World In Your Shirt Pocket
All the music and movies ever made stored in one pocket-sized device....

On several occasions in print and during presentations I have made the observation that soon we will be able to carry all the music we have ever heard contained on a single shirt pocket size device.

Sometimes I have extended and elaborated by saying that this will then also quickly move on to all the music ever recorded, to be followed by all the movies we have seen - and so on.

The context has either been as an example of exponential change, the rate of technological advance, and/or the threat posed to old business models and industries by new devices and previously unthought-of customer activity. To be specific, the PC and the internet saw Napster become the mother of more 'criminal' activity, by the strict letter of the copyright laws, in a shorter time than any other previous technology.

Mass storage, raw processing power, cheap network bandwidth, and unprecedented connectivity, is changing everything.

At a recent industry meeting my viewpoint was challenged and in real time I had to construct a defence. My rationale, on the white board, went something like this: Let us make a few basic and well-founded assumptions - (1) Suppose you listen to music for 10 hours a day every day of your three score years and ten. Not an unreasonable assumption in that we sleep for 8 of the 24, and have to travel, talk, meet, work, play et al as well. (2) Now assume that the average music track is 3 minutes in duration. Then in one lifetime we will have heard 70 x 365 x 10 x 60/3 = 5,110,000 tracks. (3) Now assume we hear each track an average of 10 times, and at an average MP3 file size of 3MB, we would then need 3 x 0.511 x 10^12 Bytes of storage space.

Another way off getting to these figures is to assume that MP3 music files realise around 1min of playtime per 1MB delivered. So 1 x 60 x 10 x 365 x 70 = 1,533 GB, a figure we will use shortly to extend the argument to movies and TV.

So we are looking at something of the order 1,500 GB (or 1.5TB) to satisfy my lifetime music suggestion. How close are we today? As far as I can see the largest capacity MP3 players are currently up to 80GB and 100GB should be available within a few months. So roughly speaking we need around 15 such devices to carry all the music we ever heard contained in a rather large and extended shirt pocket.

We now have to make a projection as to the speed of likely development.

To put it mildly the disk storage boys are on a roll creating denser storage capacities well ahead of Moore's Law for the Integrated Circuit. Densities seem to be doubling within 12 months, and we are assured of at least another decade of such progress. One manufacturer is proclaiming that standard PC Drives of 0.5TB capacity will be on the market by 2006 - just two years from now.

The smaller laptop devices will probably follow just two years later in 2008. So my forecast is that my first prediction will come true around 2012.

If we make a similar set of assumptions for TV programmes and movies we can also repeat the above derivation process, but it is easier to assume a 1,000 fold increase in the Bytes requires, to fill and exactly replace our 10 hours a day for a lifetime of listening to become a lifetime of viewing. Then we need around 1,500TB (or 1.5PB) in our shirt pocket. This will definitely demand the 3D storage techniques currently being developed in the R&D laboratories today.

So assuming today's density growth rates we will only need another 10 years beyond my 2012 estimate we're looking at 2024. And beyond this? All the music ever recorded might require another 1,000 fold density increase, which would take us out to 2034. Who knows?

Why is all this a stunner? On one level it is a huge leap compared to time taken to get from a wax cylinder to the CD. But on the most disruptive level, it will kill some companies and corporations, and may even lay waste to entire industries unable to adopt and adapt fast enough to new customer derived regimes.

More exciting and revolutionary is the degree of control afforded the owners of these devices, especially when each pocket device has a wireless capability included for short-range networking. When they are programmed to operate as automated Napster stations, continually scanning, searching and comparing, taking in and passing on new tracks, from anyone and anything that gets in range long enough, then we will see a living network unlike no other.

For anyone out there thinking that's that then, or so what, the good/bad news is; it doesn't stop. We have a long way to go yet, holographic devices, and perhaps some nano-devices can extend this (1,000 fold every 10 years) growth for many decades beyond.

So what ultimately happens? Of course, no one knows exactly, but I suspect all our life bits will be included and subsumed very quickly. I just want to see the search engines and interfaces to go with it. Seems to me that the real challenge is going to be how we keep track and find everything in seconds.

This column was conceived and the calculations formulated on flight BA21933 between London and Dallas, the original text was typed between Austin and San Francisco on AA1703 and revised between Ipswich and Bristol on the M4. It was finally despatched to from Jury's Hotel Bristol via a dial up modem @ 48kbit/s.