TR Interviews Seagate CEO Bill Watkins

Gordon finds out SSDs are very much on the mind of one of the world's most controversial chief executives...

It is always a pleasure to meet Seagate head honcho Bill Watkins. The famously controversial CEO, who once declared the primary benefit of larger hard drives was to enlarge our porn collections, touched down in London this week and set his sights firmly on the industry’s current darling: SSD.

“Does the fact the iPod has a solid state drive bother me, no!” he characteristically retorted when I asked him if Seagate was missing a trick by not offering a solid state product to the mobile marketplace.

“The chain up and down to and from the iPod is still HDD, that’s a huge space. We see NAND flash as a component and what is important is not getting into a fab (fabrication plant for production), that has no price premium at the moment. The critical point is to have the controller technology and the interface technology.”

He continued “It may not seem like it, but Seagate has a $100m annual investment in solid state and right now there are two standards, SLC and MLC, and SLC does not scale but has performance, while MLC has reliability issues at top performance. We’re putting a lot of money in spin RAM, magnetic ram, phase shift technology, the next technology beyond MLC.”

So what is the solution to the SSD verses HDD conundrum? According to Watkins, potentially the much touted but – until now – failed Hybrid Hard Drive. “SSDs have tremendous performance, IOPs, but we’ll see. If the SSD market achieves everything it hopes to by 2012 an 80GB SSD will sell for $80, then a 500GB HDD will be going for $50 equivalent… we are looking at a Hybrid HDD where you can pin the drive and operate the boot from outside the OS, which would bring us closer to an instantaneous boot up. 15GB of the drive would be flash, but it could be up to two years (before release).”

Watkins also addressed concerns over the current economic crisis and impending/impended recession in typically bold fashion: “Macro economics has everyone stalled… we’re prepared for no one to show-up (for Christmas) and if they do we’re prepared for that too. We’ve been here before when coming off the 1999 dot com bubble where it all stalled for 3/4 years. It’s nothing new.”

Would he use nose diving stock prices to launch any takeover bids? Like *cough* SanDisk? “It’s almost absolute that there will be further consolidation in the storage market,” he admitted, though with SanDisk he was “not sure the economics are right”.

Interestingly, Seagate used to own 40% of SanDisk which it was forced to sell when Seagate became privatised, but Watkins’s says he remains close with SanDisk CEO Eli Harari. Commenting on the recent failed SanDisk bid by Samsung he explained: “Samsung was prepared to spend a lot of money on SanDisk (for patents SanDisk owns) and Samsung doesn’t have a better solution so looked like it was worth the money.”

Naturally Watkins has the SSD market all worked out too, smiling as he said “(When you do show up) you have to show up with a product and price it and for now we can’t show up with anything significantly better (than what is out there) and whoever you look at they’re selling at a loss.”

Is it all about the money, I quizzed? “We can’t sell product where we can’t make money…” he said with a glint in his eye.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the insurmountable Bill Watkins…

Bill Watkins CEO Page

Unlike other sites, we thoroughly review everything we recommend, using industry standard tests to evaluate products. We’ll always tell you what we find. We may get a commission if you buy via our price links. Tell us what you think – email the Editor