THE hard drive, like all the parts inside a computer, is a commodity. While there may be some quality differences between the makers’ products, manufacturers generally compete on little more than price. All hard drives do pretty much the same thing: store and retrieve data.
Take the hard drive outside of the computer and it becomes a different story. The drives still do pretty much the same thing, but now the makers have to convince you of their distinctions. How? By adding a little style to these gray boxes.
Once relegated to a back shelf in the electronics store, back by the notebook bags and blank DVDs and CDs, external hard drives will soon don brushed aluminum cases, decorator colors and glowing blue or amber lights that ensure that the devices can grab attention when in public view.
LaCie has a new drive, the d2, with an aluminum alloy case designed by Neil Poulton, a Scotsman who has also created a line of Artemide lamps. Seagate will be selling Dave, a sleek 20-gigabyte drive that connects wirelessly to cellphones for carrying photos, music and video. It is no larger than a small cellphone itself.
Strong demand for external hard drives was one of the highlights in consumer electronics last year. Americans spent $600 million on external hard drives in 2006, an increase of 53 percent over 2005, according to NPD, a market research firm. Put another way, consumers bought 739.7 million gigabytes of hard-drive storage space last year, more than 11 times as much as they did in 2003.
The need to back up all the songs, photos, videos and movies Americans hold is, of course, driving the demand. The inevitable falling prices of the hard drive compels the manufacturers to gussy up the drives in order to command a premium price, much as Apple does with its PCs or iPods.
“Hard drives are the classic tech commodity product that follows the classic tech price curve,” said Stephen Baker, vice president for industry analysis at NPD. The average price for an external hard drive fell to $141 last year, from $197 in 2003, while the amount of storage space on the drives doubled.
Another way to look at it: In 2003, the retail price for a gigabyte of hard-drive storage was $2.04, according to NPD. Last year, it was 77 cents.
The emphasis on design is also a reflection that the external drive is no longer one more gadget for the tech-obsessed, but a necessary accessory for anyone with a computer. The storage device is the point at which the consumer electronics world is colliding with the information technology world, and the aesthetics of the consumer electronics world are winning in the clash.
Nowhere is the shift more apparent than at Hewlett-Packard, a company renowned for its engineers. Last year the company introduced the MediaVault, an external hard drive that connects to a home network so data on any PC in the network can be easily stored there. Its case resembles the gray and black case of a desktop PC tower.
This year, however, Hewlett-Packard will be selling a new storage device called the MediaSmart home server. The engineers added many more features. It connects to the home network to back up data on all the computers on the network automatically, and people can access data from off premises through a secure Internet connection. It can also hold up to four terabytes of storage.
But the important thing is what the engineers did not do: design the look of the drives. This device is a black lacquer box with four horizontal blue lights. It matches the finish of the black bezel that usually surrounds a big-screen high-definition TV in the living room rather than that of the old putty-colored computer in the den.
It wasn’t just about letting the H.P. engineers loosen their hold. “We gave design an equal position at the table with the marketing people,” said Satjiv Chahil, Hewlett-Packard’s senior vice president for global marketing.
Design does make a difference in sales. Western Digital sold almost 40 percent of all external hard drives last year, according to data from Current Analysis, a market research firm, thanks to its My Book device. The glossy bluish-black case resembled a dictionary-size book. Two concentric circles of blue light that glow from the binding side display the amount of storage used.
As Western Digital knocked Maxtor from its perch as the best seller in the consumer market, Maxtor and its new parent company, Seagate, took action.
The look of Seagate drives, created by Frog Design, is supposed to help remind people of the emotional ties they have to what is stored on the magnetic platters. (Maxtor’s rubbery ridged box is expected to be overhauled this year.) “When you lose your files, you lose a piece of yourself,” said James Druckrey, the senior vice president in charge of Seagate’s branding efforts.
Seagate’s new FreeAgent Go drive has a brushed anodized aluminum exterior in a color executives call “deep cappuccino,” a homey phrase that seems out of place in an industry that has been more comfortable with terms like “perpendicular magnetic recording,” “spindle speeds” and “SATA interfaces.”
Consumers should not need to know any of those terms, Mr. Druckrey said. The FreeAgent packing box, a key part of the overall Seagate product redesigns, soft-pedals any specifications. The white box, with a plastic handle on top, says that it has the capacity to store 120 “glorious gigabytes.” It is covered with comments one might utter while looking at stuff stored on a drive, like “is this obsessive” or “you promised not to laugh.”
Opening the box reveals a message printed on each flap: “It loves me,” reads the first, then “It loves me not,” and finally, “It loves me and goes wherever I go.”
Seagate is hoping its distinctive white cardboard boxes stand out among the jumble of drives on the retailers’ shelves. Everyone in the industry concedes that it is hard to sort out the external drives from the internal drives or the network-attached device from those connecting directly to a PC.
“It’s a mess,” said Philippe Spruch, the chief executive of LaCie, another hard-drive vendor. He thinks that by Christmas, volume will be high enough that retailers will have an incentive to display the drives more attractively.
But noted designers are not all they are cracked up to be with the crowd that buys hard drives, Mr. Spruch said. He should know, since the company he founded pioneered the trend almost 15 years ago with drives designed to go with Apple’s high-design Mac computers.
LaCie drives, which account for 7 percent of the external drive market, have been conceptualized by designers like Mr. Poulton, Philippe Starck, Karim Rashid, Ora Ïto and Porsche Design, known for their work on lamps, chairs and other household objects. “We’ve shipped four million hard drives, and only a small minority of the buyers know these designers,” Mr. Spruch said.
Not everyone is going for the designer look. Buffalo, which makes hard drives for the most hard-core tech enthusiast, now has a consumer line, the Tera Station Live. But Brian Verenkoff, product marketing manager, said it still looked as if it belonged in a data center. “Stylistically it is not the perfect match for the home,” he said.
Mr. Spruch is nevertheless convinced that design matters. “Design is a translation of a well-done product, and people want to feel safe about their storage,” he said. “It’s not just about the product being trendy.”