New IBM ThinkPad retains data even if owner is thoughtless

Click here to enlarge image

Dec. 2, 2003 — These accelerometers won’t save your life. But they soon might save your data.

IBM announced in October that it was launching an updated line of its ThinkPad laptop computers with accelerometers in a system to protect data during drops.

The IBM Active Protection System (APS) includes a motion sensor that detects acceleration, such as in a fall. The system responds by stopping the hard drive from writing data and temporarily parking, or moving the read/write head away from the vulnerable data area. The system is designed to prevent hard-drive crashes and data loss, as well as reduce warranty costs.

Click here to enlarge image

APS is being added to IBM ThinkPad’s T and R series — the company’s two biggest selling laptop products, according to Mark Cohen, distinguished engineer and director of Think offerings.

“All new products we launch in that line are contemplated to have that feature — over time, that will become 100 percent of what we ship,” he said. “I would be surprised if we didn’t ship more than a million of these next year.”

Cohen said the sensors — supplied by Massachusetts-based firms MEMSIC Inc. and Analog Devices Inc. — are the same as those that help deploy air bags in auto crashes. But in laptops, it’s more of a precrash application. “I can’t wait for the collision — it’s too late,” he said. “We detect when the system is on the way down.”

The destination was simple: protect data. But the ride was less direct. Cohen’s team first tackled the problem by beefing up the drive. One solution was to build an external drive; another was to create innovative shock absorbers to insulate the internal drive. All were good, but the team concluded it was still vulnerable.

He said researchers decided the better approach would be preventing damage in the first place. MEMS accelerometers met or exceeded many of their requirements: cost, ruggedness and sensitivity to small levels of acceleration — in other words, detecting the tiny G-force as the laptop starts to fall so the system can take action on the way down.

“Most people who have notebooks can relate to some experience where they accidentally dropped their system, or it fell off their laps,” he said. “It’s a personal thing. And they can relate to the air bag technology. It’s not a difficult concept.”

Marlene Bourne, a MEMS analyst with In-Stat/MDR, said IBM’s system is an intriguing and surprising use for motion sensors. She said the technology brings peace of mind — and potential profits.

“You wonder if an application like this might help drive laptop sales further than they would,” she said. “There’s likely a decent percent of the market that would prefer to get a laptop but don’t because it’s in the home … and could get knocked around. This may possibly open up laptop sales that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred.”


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.