It was the rage: bubble memory–an invention that promised to replace the hard disk. Invented by Bell Labs in the 1970s, it was commercialized by Intel, and heavily marketed in the early 1980s as the ultimate answer for microcomputer memory storage.
Bubble memory would replace the hard disk, said its proponents. Not only would it retain its memory after the computer had been turned off, unlike Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) chips, but it wouldn’t have any moving parts.
The full name was Magnetic Bubble Memory. It was a method of recording data in bubble-like magnetic regions on the surface of a chip. Perhaps its most noteworthy advantage was a ruggedness that attracted the military, which continued to use the technology after its failure in the market. Bubble memory can withstand high temperatures, dust, humidity, and high radiation without falling; it’s also removable.
So what happened? First of all, it turned out to be harder to make bubble memory than expected. The fabrication process never proved to be smooth or cheap enough to compete with other technologies.
Furthermore, it required a complex controller, not unlike a hard disk controller, to make the system work. Worse, it was power hungry. While it was a static technology when inactive, it required a lot of juice to move those bubbles around. Users also discovered that glitches in the data were a problem. And finally, it was slow.
All this added up to expense and inconvenience. The memory chips themselves never came close to the price points of DRAM chips, and hard disks continued to drop in price and improve (a practice still happening). Combined, the two managed to pop bubble memory’s chances at wide acceptance.