The SyQuest 306. (evaluation) Will Fastie.
The SyQuest 306
The pace of technological development in the computer industry is too rapid for the human eye to see, much less for the human mind to comprehend. Just as we think we have mastered something, its replacement is announced, or we discover that it has been made obsolete by an entirely new development. For the most part, however, these things are not particularly revolutionary. They have an effect, but most don't change the face of the industry.
That is why I was so excited to find myself with a few extra hours before my plane left San Jose several months ago, and why I was overjoyed when Syed Iftikar, chairman and president of SyQuest Technology, agreed to meet with me. I made a mad dash for Fremont and with little trouble found the brand new, 65,000 square foot head-quarters of this less than one-year-old company.
What has me so excited is a new disk drive Mr. Iftikar and his company are manufacturing. It is a 5Mb, removable media Winchester disk drive with some characteristics that I think will cause quite a revolution in the small systems market, especially if Mr. Iftikar is able to achieve what I think are some pretty ambitious goals, but about which he is confident.
Here are the significant attributes of the drive. First, of course, it uses removable media. A cartridge drive can be an excellent alternative for backup, especially because it can be used as direct storage. It can also stand alone as primary mass storage. Second, the SyQuest 306 is half the size of the industry standard (5 1/4 ) mini-floppy. It is the height that has been halved, so two SQ306s will fit in the same space occupied by a single mini-floppy drive. Third, it consumes about the same amount of power as a mini-floppy. This important factor means that it can directly replace a floppy in a system without requiring changes to the power supply. Even though it consumes less power, it has an average access time of 75 milliseconds and a data transfer rate of 5 megabits per second, giving it much better performance than floppies. Last, and most important, the price is aggressive.
At the moment, the factory price for a single unit is $800. SyQuest is a manufacturer, however, and so does not sell directly to the consumer. They sell to integrators who package the drive with control electronics, software, or whatever else is needed to produce a complete system. The integrator who buys in quantity will pay less than $500 today. Translated into retail terms, this implies an end-user price of under $2000; prices of $1800 for systems using the SQ306 are already a fact.
Considered in a broader context, the price becomes more interesting. Since the drive uses an industry standard ST506 interface, it can be integrated with existing subsystems so that it shares the power supply, enclosure, and controller electronics. Since the integrator will have good margin built in to his subsystem price to begin with, it is possible that the SyQuest drive can be added as a backup device for just a little bit more than the integrator's cost. And that also implies that a subsystem consisting of two SyQuests can be built rather inexpensively.
That's where I really begin to get excited. Once you own a disk subsystem, cartridge or not, convenient backup is essential. With one SQ306 and even a large main memory, a cartridge-to-cartridge copy is cumbersome. With two cartridges, it is a snap. Not only that, but you have 10Mb online. I think about this the same way I think about floppies, except suddenly the capacity is ten times greater. When I think about reducing my library of floppies to just a few cartridges, my mouth begins to water. I start to get dizzy when I think about not having to change disks every five minutes. At least one company has announced a product with two SQ306 drives for the IBM Personal Computer, and several others are thinking about it.
Mr. Iftikar, however, is not satisfied with the price. He has set a goal of $150 in large quantities, and intends to achieve the goal with automated assembly and volume manufacturing. He says he will compete with the Japanese, and is quick to point out that he is far ahead of everybody, including Japan, Inc.
Bold claims. And frankly, I was a little skeptical before I visited SyQuest. As I listened to Syed explain his machine and his plans, and as he took me on a tour of his facility, I became more and more impressed. He is a quiet, thought-ful man. His answers to may questions were direct and lucid. There was no false modesty, and no false pride. As he describes how his company moved so rapidly, it becomes obvious that he personally designed the entire drive. He talks about how each engineer had specific, objective goals: make this part thus and so, and make it cost no more than this. He points to his robotics lab, where engineers are building a robot to install the spindle motor of the drive, a robot that will reduce labor costs by 20%. We hover over a table with two drives in operation; the heads and media are completely exposed to the environment, and a sign states "You are encouraged to smoke.'
It is more than self-confidence. This is a man who knows what he is doing, and who knows that you know it. This is a man who plays for keeps; he personally financed SyQuest, and remains the sole investor. I walked away from the interview thinking that if Syed Iftikar said it, it would be.
SyQuest knows what they have. They believe that the SQ306 will sell in place of lower capacity hard disks because of the removable media. As the cost drops, and SyQuest expects that to happen fast, a dual-drive cartridge subsystem will compete effectively with mini-floppies. Mr. Iftikar sees SyQuest inserted between floppies and hard disks; he thinks he'll win head-to-head with floppies and will force the Winchesters into higher capacities. He thinks he will undercut flexible or hard disk devices using vertical recording technologies.
Others seem to know what SyQuest has as well. A SyQuest press release at Comdex stated that more than 200 system builders were evaluating the drives. I took an informal poll of vendors of disk subsystems for the IBM PC and found that 90% were already SyQuest customers. At Comdex, about 30 firms exhibited the drive.
Assuming that SyQuest can build all the drives they say they will (200,000 in 1983, with a second source already licensed), and assuming they can produce the cartridges (a SyQuest subsidiary, MicroDisk is in operation, second sources licensed again) in sufficient volume, it certainly sounds as though they have a winner. Look for the unit to pop up everywhere. No matter what kind of computer system you own, I predict availability of this drive for it soon.
SyQuest Technology, 47923 Warm Springs Blvd., Fremont, CA 94538.
Products: Syquest 306 (computer apparatus)