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Panasonic's concept designs for flash memory devices include an MP3 music player you wear like a watch, right, and microwave ovens that cook from a recipe stored in one of its SD cards

Flash Memory Cards

In the days before e-mail, the 3.5-inch diskette -- aka the "floppy disk" -- reigned supreme. The only (semi) convenient way to transfer data between computers was to copy files onto one of the familiar plastic squares and physically carry it from one machine to another. The humble floppy still has its uses today -- as a coaster, a frisbee or a prop for a wonky table leg -- but who needs a chunk of plastic to swap files when you've got the Internet?

Everybody, it seems. The floppy may be dead, but the concept behind it is far from buried. Flash memory cards -- wafer-thin, postage stamp-sized descendants of the diskette -- are emerging as a new way of transferring and temporarily storing digital information. Memory cards are showing up most prominently in digital cameras as replacements for ordinary film. They are gaining currency as storage media for portable audio devices that play MP3 music files, standing in for cassette tapes, CDs and mini discs.

Think of flash memory cards as high-capacity floppies, but with a difference. While floppy disks were limited to shifting data from PC to PC, flash memory cards are being developed to be useful in all kinds of information appliances, allowing users to move content directly between different gadgets. Computers need not be involved at all.

An example: Sony's Cyberframe, a stand-alone digital photo frame that displays images on an LCD screen. Take a snapshot with your digital camera, store it on a card (Sony calls its memory device the Memory Stick), and when you get home plug the card into the frame -- a nearly instant golden moment. No need to boot up a computer to make prints. Slip the Memory Stick into a special photo printer and at the press of a button a set of glossies is yours.

That's just starters. Sony and other manufacturers such as Panasonic are already dreaming of a future in which every consumer electronics product you buy has a slot for a capacious flash memory card. Floppies maxed out at 1.4 megabytes, but most memory cards today can hold 64 megabytes of data; capacities of 128 and 256 megabytes will soon reach the market. That's easily big enough to hold scores of high-resolution photographs and hours of CD quality audio.

With all devices and all content speaking the same digital language of zeros and ones, the potential uses for flash memory appear innumerable. Imagine surfing the Net and seeing that your favorite band has released a new album. You can download it to your PC, but you don't have to listen to it there. Copy the tracks to a memory card and take your music away. Plug the card into a personal audio player or into a slot in your car stereo. And you'll be able to use the card with your home stereo system, too. Because the files are digital, you can e-mail a favorite track to a friend (providing you have the copyright holder's permission, or course). Your pals need not be at their PC -- or even own one. They could access the e-mail over their cellphone, listen to the track and if they like it insert a memory card into the handset and transfer it to their own stereo later.

Maybe. The secret of the success of the floppy (and the CD and video cassette as well) was universality. But the market for flash memory cards is fragmented between several competing formats. Sony's purple, chewing gum-sized Memory Stick is perhaps the best known to consumers, but Panasonic and Toshiba are trying to rally the industry around their competing SD (Secure Digital) card. Other formats include the wafer-thin SmartMedia cards used in MP3 players and Olympus and FujiFilm's digital cameras, and the thicker, matchbook-sized CompactFlash cards favored by Kodak, Nikon and Canon. All four are mutually incompatible, so it's no good trying to jam the card from your Nikon camera into Sony's Cyberframe.

"The industry hasn't really appreciated the need to standardize yet," says Bruce McCabe, Sydney-based research director for GartnerGroup. "It will happen," he says, but it could be at least three years before the dust settles. "It takes a long time for manufacturers to come to the table seriously," he says. "They don't like to give any ground if they feel they can steal a march on the competition. At the moment they all think they can." Prices, while still too high at around $100 for a 32-megabyte card, are falling as the competition hots up. Sony, which introduced the 3.5-inch diskette in 1981, plans to shrink its Memory Stick by half.

Sony is also licensing its technology to others in an effort to avoid a repeat of the Betamax fiasco. The Japanese firm has struck a potentially lucrative deal with Palm Computing, maker of the popular handheld organizers, but converting direct rivals will be tougher. "Sony being Sony, other vendors are suspicious of them," says Graham Penn, general manager for storage research with International Data Corp. in Australia. Indeed, 71 high-tech firms (including Panasonic, Toshiba, Microsoft and Compaq) have formed an association to discuss setting common industry standards around the SD card.

Penn predicts that with the public already warming to card-equipped devices, a clear winner in the standards war could begin to emerge within eighteen months. "The ubiquity of the floppy is the holy grail," says Penn. "But it has to happen soon. The industry can't wait forever for somebody to invent a better mousetrap." Or data trap.


cover story | high-capacity memory cards | broadband wireless transmission systems | "Bluetooth" short-range communications chips

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