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Speakers’ Corner: The smart phone storage evolution

Mobile News
August 23, 2021

With data demand higher than ever, the need for ample storage is more important than ever, says Western Digital EMEA sales director Christophe Vaissade 

Much like any technological innovation, the first iterations of the mobile phone were heavy, featured a clunky antenna and were bigger than laptops of today.

Fast forward to the current day and our mobile devices can instantly upload high-definition photos, perform identity checks through fingerprint or facial recognition and even make online purchases while simultaneously streaming a movie, all while fitting in your pocket.

The smartphone’s role is now so ingrained into our daily lives that we often take this feat of innovation for granted.

IDC now estimates that 5G smartphone shipments will account for more than 40 per cent of global volume before the year is out and grow to 69 per cent of mobile phones in 2025. The next generation of mobiles is here.

While the heralded features and innovations of modern mobile device performance are typically network speed, pixel count and camera quality, the often-unsung technology powering these devices is mobile storage.

With smartphones recently becoming the centre of everyday life, the growth in the production and consumption of data on these phones has been astronomical.

The speed of 5G and volume of data generated, coupled with the fact that we use the mobile phone for so much, means storage is now essential in enabling mobile handset vendors to deliver their latest innovations.

From old to new

The mobile disk-on-chip (mDOC) was the first embedded storage solution, involving an integrated storage option in addition to external, removable cards.

It provided more capacity, a solution to boot from, and special features like security and endurance, a far cry from the levels of performance required today.

However, as innovations take shape, the key move from proprietary storage to industry standards has ensured storage performance has kept pace with device performance. For example, the original mDOC used a proprietary derivative of the SATA interface because there were no industry standards in place at the time.

In contrast, the modern-day storage industry standards allow manufacturers to align on design specifications and therefore deliver regular innovations to customers at scale. JEDEC, the open standards organisation for microelectronics, introduced the e.MMC (embedded MultiMediaCard) in 2007 as the first embedded storage standard.

This was an essential step forward as mDOC, and other proprietary systems began to form the foundations of many of the features that followed within the e.MMC and UFS (Universal Flash Storage) interface specifications.

Working on a cell level

As storage innovations like the e.MMC began to be unveiled, it was no coincidence that the first smartphones quickly followed suit. With higher performance and capacities, the next-generation mobile development now had firm foundations on which to build.

The initial smartphone had a far larger operating system than its standard mobile competition and new features like touch screens and applications were crucially supported by the new storage solutions.

The evolution of single-level cell (SLC) to multi-level cell (MLC) and to triple-level cell (TLC) technology meant that each generation that was produced packed more bits into a flash memory cell. This provided major benefits to users such as cost reductions, better supplies and higher capacities.

Into the modern day

The e.MMC standard drove higher speeds and capacities, but as phones, apps and operating systems continued to evolve, there was a need for even faster, more responsive storage. The introduction of 4G and subsequently, 5G, has brought in new collaborative apps such as ride-sharing or live tracking that changed the game for mobile phones yet again.

It was no longer about the number of applications able to be stored on one phone, but instead the number of concurrent apps one is able to run. As a result, application multitasking began to drive the performance of embedded storage and some of these innovations have now driven the need for the storage specification known as UFS (universal flash storage).

The evolution of apps has increased the need for sequential write performance, from mixed workloads to download speeds for rich media such as 8K video, and faster application launch and upload speeds. Mobile gaming, as an example, has raised the importance of random read performance and how quickly you can launch apps.

Current manufacturers are now working closer than ever before with ecosystem partners to align around industry standards. Embedded storage is now included at the early stages in design boards, with new product development focus ensuring they are interoperable long before they reach the end customer.

The future of mobile storage

Innovation is inevitable and will continue. NAND will evolve, chipsets and operating systems will change and mobile phones will only get better as a result. But for now, we are just scratching the surface of the potential for mobile.

The introduction of 5G has enabled new apps and will bring more uses cases that we haven’t even thought of.

Already use cases like AR and VR are showing that phones are now becoming multi-sensor content platforms, where the interplay and the improved latency is changing not just how you get data on and off your phone, but how you store, display, and process it.

Whether mobile phones of the future incorporate hand gestures or eye movements, become a wearable form factor, or entirely replace everyday items like ID cards and wallets, one thing is certain, storage will play an essential role.

Christophe Vaissade is sales director EMEA at Western Digital, a company that provides data storage solutions

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