Predicting how fast a newer, more advanced, and more costly technology will eclipse an older, established, less expensive one is always a tricky business. Sometimes, as with the TV industry's transition to flat-panel models, the change happens far more quickly than expected. Yet other transitions, such as the migration from standard-definition DVDs to Blu-Ray discs, prove to be more painful and drawn-out than you'd guess.

In the case of solid-state drives (SSDs) -- storage drives made with flash memory chips -- I'm thinking that they'll be adopted more quickly than most people are expecting, displacing millions of traditional hard drives along the way. The transition won't happen overnight -- given their cost advantages, hard drives will be a big part of the picture for quite some time. But SSDs have too many advantages to be a bit player in the storage game for long. Of these, the biggest are:

  • They're thinner and lighter than hard drives.
  • They consume less power.
  • They deliver much better performance, especially for accessing small amounts of data.
  • They're more reliable. Drop an SSD onto a concrete sidewalk, and chances are that it'll be fine. Drop a hard drive in operation, and, well ...

Put these advantages together, and SSDs are suddenly in the middle of some of the biggest, overarching trends that you see today in technology. Namely: greater portability, lower energy consumption, and instant access to information. And as a result, SSDs are now popping up all over the place.

Who's using SSDs, and who benefits
Makers of high-performance desktop PCs, such as workstations and gaming rigs, are adopting SSDs in a big way. So are manufacturers of "thin-and-light" notebooks: Dell's cutting-edge Adamo XPS notebook, for example, uses an SSD. And interestingly enough, a lot of netbooks are also shipping with SSDs. At the low storage capacities that netbooks often look for (16GB or less), SSDs have become competitively priced with comparable hard drives.

In the enterprise world, the soaring power demands of data centers, along with an interest in improving server response times, are making SSDs a natural fit. HP (NYSE:HPQ) and IBM (NYSE:IBM) are offering them for their servers, while EMC (NYSE:EMC) and NetApp are providing them for their storage systems. Recently, a San Diego research center announced plans to build a supercomputer that will use 256 terabytes worth of Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) SSDs. That much SSD capacity sure doesn't come cheap, but the research center apparently decided it was worth it.

The rise of SSDs is bad news for hard drive giants Seagate Technology (NASDAQ:STX) and Western Digital, but clearly good news for Intel and Sandisk (NASDAQ:SNDK), who should benefit both from their own SSD sales, and from healthier flash memory pricing. Enterprise SSD maker STEC (NASDAQ:STEC) is another name to keep an eye on. STEC's shares recently took a hit due to inventory issues with EMC, but the company remains a market leader, and its valuation is suddenly reasonable.

As flash memory costs keep dropping at a much faster clip than hard drive costs, it's safe to assume that SSDs are going to find themselves in a lot more PCs, servers, and storage systems. The transition might take time, but SSD makers can expect steady growth, and it's not crazy to think that in less than a decade, we'll be looking at hard drives the way that we now look at tube TVs.

Fool contributor Eric Jhonsa remembers the days when 120 megabytes seemed like a lot of hard drive space. He has no position in any of the companies mentioned. Dell and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.