Toshiba should release sub-1-inch hard drives in 2004, with samples on view at Las Vegas' giant CES trade show in January.

The move could herald a move to a smaller form-factor for Apple's market-leading iPod music player, as Toshiba produces the 1.8-inch drives currently used in that product. Reducing iPod size would still be limited by that of the product's battery-pack, however.

Toshiba has furnished no further details of the drive, although industry sources say that Toshiba and several other companies, including Matsushita are developing drives with 0.8-inch or 0.7-inch diameter platters. That's smaller than the CompactFlash form-factor Microdrive produced by Hitachi, which is based on a 1-inch platter, and less than half the size of the 1.8-inch drive used in the iPod.

"Disk drives are going into more and more applications," said Thomas Coughlin, president of storage market analysis company Coughlin Associates, during a storage industry conference in Tokyo in November: "Companies are looking at 1.8-inch, 1-inch and possibly 0.8-inch or 0.7-inch drives."

Shipments to increase

His predictions for the hard-disk drive market have 1.8-inch and smaller drive shipments reaching 3.3 million drives this year and climbing to 23.7 million drives in 2008 or, as a percentage of the overall disk drive market, from 1.4 per cent this year to 5.3 per cent in 2008.

These are expected to appear in products that require high-capacity data storage in a small form factor, such as MP3 players, handheld digital video players and other portable consumer electronics, and even some mobile phones.

Mass-market acceptance of Apple's iPod and other products implementing Toshiba's 1.8-inch drive technology have already encouraged Toshiba to double production of such drives to 600,000 units per month by March 2004.

Flash-memory storage is the medium of choice for many portable consumer electronics products at present, although small form-factor hard-disk drives offer advantages in several areas over solid-state memory: they cost around 30 per cent of flash storage alternatives, and that price advantage grows as capacity increases.

At present the market for 1.8-inch and smaller class hard-disk drives is dominated by two Japanese companies – Toshiba in the 1.8-inch space and Hitachi in the 1-inch space – but competitors are emerging to grab a piece of the action.

"Hitachi has been until recently the only player in the market and we expect them to continue to be the technology leader," said Thomas Su, chief technical officer of GS Magicstor (a competing manufacturer), at the same Tokyo conference. "Cornice has enjoyed some early success with a proprietary interface. But we expect many players will come into the market sooner or later. It's a matter of time."