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The Death of the Hard Drive

WD CaviarGreen SATA64 2 hard drive

The Caviar Green hard disk drive from Western Digital. (Western Digital)

Stop worrying about when the hard drive in your computer will die. Google wants to kill it permanently anyway.

The new Google Chrome operating system, which was unveiled Tuesday, as well as hints and suggestions from Apple and Microsoft, offers us a preview of the PC of the future. And it will come without that familiar whirring disk that has been the data heart of the PC for the past 25 years. 

The Chrome OS will at first be available on all-black laptops from Samsung and Acer. And because the new platform stores everything -- files, applications, data bits and bytes, literally everything -- on online servers rather than on your home or office PC, those new PCs running it won't require gobs of storage. In fact, they won't require any storage at all. 

The new Google laptops come without hard drives, in other words. 

Other hardware manufacturers have seen the trend, too: The ebook readers from Amazon and Barnes & Noble don't have hard drives. (And digital books you buy from Google's brand new eBooks store are stored online as well.) The Apple iPad has no drive, and the newest MacBook Air laptop skips a hard drive entirely as well; they all rely on flash memory chips for storage. 

Is this the end of the hard disk? Will all computers eventually be just like the MacBook or Google's notebooks -- think soldered memory chips, not spinning metal platters.

"For the first 35 years of the PC revolution, the answer to the question 'How much storage do you need?' was basically 'As much as you can get!'" said Harry McCracken, the former editor in chief of PC World and head of the Technologizer.com blog. "That's finally starting to change, thanks to cloud-based repositories for music, video, personal files, and the like," he told FoxNews.com.

It's all about "the cloud," the generic term for storing data online and off your computer. E-mail apps from Yahoo and G-mail and Hotmail kicked off cloud computing, since the e-mail application you're running and the data you're accessing is all stored online. It's reliable, easy to access and convenient ... so for data in general, why store it on your desktop PC at all? 

Google's Chrome operating system takes that idea and runs with it -- down the street, up the next block, and straight on into the sunset. The Chrome OS assumes you’re always in your browser -- which is the access point for most of your files anyway, right? Web pages, e-mails, documents on Google Docs, photos stored at Flickr, video chats, streaming music from Pandora and on and on. Think about it: Most of what you do is online, isn't it?

"Today’s operating systems were designed in an era where there was no web," Google spokesman Eitan Bencuya told FoxNews.com. "Google Chrome OS is designed for people who spend most of their time on the web. It’s our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be."

Skip the traditional desktop and save time, simplicity and memory, Google argues. And because it doesn’t load a bunch of background stuff, Chrome OS boots almost instantly. Demos Google show the Chrome OS booting in 7 seconds or less -- significantly faster than traditional operating systems from Microsoft and Apple. 

And since there's no data stored on your computer, PCs running the Chrome OS won't need a hard drive. How will other OS makers react? Apple hasn't announced plans to make its computer OS run from the cloud like Chrome, but there are hints: The latest ultrathin computer from the stylish fruity company has no hard drive whatsoever.

"As interesting as what it has is what it doesn't have," CEO Steve Jobs said when he unveiled the computer in October. By going with flash memory, Jobs claimed that the new MacBook Air would be 80% smaller, two times faster, and more reliable -- and like an iPad, it would turn on instantly, rather than booting up as other computers do. More reasons to ditch the hard drive!

As tablets and ebooks become more prevalent, we'll see more devices and fewer hard drives, agrees Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for NPD data.

"The more mobile the device is, the less opportunity there will be for hard drives in those devices," Rubin told FoxNews.com, though he cautioned that the transformation to a hard drive-free world won't be an overnight change.

Microsoft seems to agree. The company official declined to respond to FoxNews.com requests for information, but widely repeated remarks from the software giant indicate that the company has plans similar to those Google built into Chrome; Windows 8 will be based on cloud storage as well, said Rajan Anandan of Microsoft India, though probably not as completely as Google's operating system.

"We believe the cloud is the future and cloud will help accelerate Microsoft’s revenues and profit growth," Anandan said. "Anything and everything that MS offers can be delivered over the cloud."

"All new products from here on will be offered over the cloud, as well as on-premise. That’s a core strategy that we have adopted now," he added.

Windows 8 has no official launch date, though if Microsoft keeps to typical release schedules, it should debut sometime in late 2012. That slow progress is key, Rubin said, because the hard drive won't be chucked in the bin overnight.

"It can be effective for 'lightweight' data such as text and contacts -- and an effective way to combat piracy via streaming movie services -- but it is still financially challenging to move huge volumes of personal media such as photos and videos to cloud-based storage," Rubin told FoxNews.com.

"Even handsets still ship with gigabytes of data, as wireless networks still lack the speed and prevalence to deliver everything we want everywhere we want it." He's right. It'll take time to completely eliminate an industry that sells billions of units per year. 

"I don't see hard disks becoming irrelevant in the short-term future," Rubin added. "Streaming still has its downsides -- for one thing, it eats up battery life like crazy. And wireless carriers are trying to nudge people to data plans that put a cap on usage, which means you can't keep humongous files in the cloud without keeping tabs on how much data you've downloaded."

Yes, the cloud may be the future, but hard drives will still persist -- they're just too deeply ingrained in what we do, at least for the time being. And even if they are ultimately pulled from computers, hard disks could persist, just not in a format we're used to. After all, even data and content online has to live somewhere, doesn't it?

"All that data stored in the cloud isn't on droplets of airborne water," Rubin joked. 

"It's stored on hard drives."

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.