The New iPad3 and Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology was touted as being a ‘trillion dollar market by 2015’ back in the late 90’s, and since then we have all spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether that will be true,  or whether it will be a two, three or zero trillion dollar market. Perhaps we needed’t have bothered.

A lot of the discussion about the market value of nanotechnology has centred on whether you should count the total value of the product, for example a Porsche coated with paints containing nanomaterials, or whether you should just take the value of the nanomaterials themselves. That obviously gives a huge variation in a single product, from one to one hundred thousand dollars, and puts any calculation of nanotechnology markets out by potentially five orders of magnitude!

At Cientifica we have always taken the more rational view that the nanotechnology market is comprised of things that couldn’t have existed without nanotechnology, and most of the products cited as containing nanotechnology either would have existed in any case, or have just had a nano- prefix slapped on them by marketers.

But consider this. Last time we looked Apple’s market cap was over half a trillion dollars, although that may swing depending on reaction to to today’s announcements, and we’d argue that most of that was enabled by nanotechnology since the introduction of the original iPod in 2001.

What enabled the iPod, and much of Apple’s subsequent success wasn’t the brilliance of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives, but a bit of physics called Giant Magnetoresistance which was discovered in 1998 and subsequently won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics for Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg. While their discovery that very weak magnetic changes give rise to major differences in electrical resistance in a GMR system, and these could be read if you created a read head comprised of films of material just a few atoms thick – described as ‘one of the first real applications of the promising field of nanotechnology’ – was significant, it was its application that had the major impact.

GMR enabled the density of information stored on disk drives to be dramatically increased, but also allowed the creation of smaller 1.8 inch drives (seen behind Steve Jobs in the opening shot of the iPod launch video) which could hold reasonable amounts of information, a paltry 5Gb by todays standards, and consume less power than their 5 inch brethren.

GMR enabled a huge growth in storage density

The real genius of Apple was in realising that a pocket sized device could be used for storing music rather than just any old data, and thence came several generations of iPods before magnetic storage was ditched in favour of smaller, lower power flash memory in the iPhone and iPad. The iPod ‘halo effect‘ also had a staggering effect on Apple’s computer sales. As a result of the iPod experience I switched from a Sony Vaio to MacBook Pro around 2003 and ditched all the office Dells for iMac G5’s in 2004 (although I still have an Xserve in my garage but that’s a different story!).

So in that sense it could be argued that Apple’s $500 billion plus the $20 billion applications market was all enabled by nanotechnology. Of course success has many fathers, so you could also argue that the market was enabled by Steve Jobs’ vision, Jonathan Ive’s design, the Fraunhofer Institute’s invention of the MP3 standard, Corning’s invention of ‘gorilla glass’, the invention of lithium-ion polymer batteries and many others.

Given that the Apple stock price has increased by 20% since the beginning of the year, by the year 2015 we may not have to worry too much about the nanotechnology market, could it have gone the way of the tablet market? i.e. it’s all just an Apple market!

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