I've just returned from this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. It's an amazing show with so many new gadgets, I can't possibly describe them all. Therefore, I'll focus on one aspect, removable solid-state memory cards. This show made it clear to me that these cards will be used in dozens—and perhaps even hundreds—of products in the next few years.
Semiconductor or solid-state memory has been packaged into portable products for a while. The devices are often sold under brand names like CompactFlash, MultiMediaCards, and Memory Stick, but they all offer the same feature: they are non-volatile silicon memory. This means that they don't need power to retain the information stored on them. Sometimes the memory is built into the products, and sometime it's removable.
Panasonic Consumer Electronics Company, Secaucus, N.J., was one of the players making a big splash at CES. It announced a new removable semiconductor product called the SD (Secure Digital) Memory Card. Remarkably, members of this new family of memory products are only about the size of a postage stamp—4 by 32 by 2.1 mm.
During the first quarter of this year, Panasonic will introduce SD Memory Cards with 32- and 64-Mbyte capacities. Production is slated for the second quarter of this year. In the near future, devices with 128 and 256 Mbytes are likely to be introduced to support video applications. In addition to the large storage capacity, small size, and fast data transfer, Panasonic has added data-encryption technology to secure the data.
Why is security important? Primarily, it's because the company believes the SD cards will be used with various audio/video products. Internet downloading of music and videos will likely need encryption to protect artists' and publishers' royalties, so secure memory devices are necessary. The SD format is compliant with current and future Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) requirements. But strong security also may enable all sorts of interesting financial transactions, like portfolio consulting, e-banking, and e-commerce.
Removable solid-state memory is already a big hit with digital still cameras, but Panasonic sees the technology extending beyond this category. For example, the company's presentation showed SD Cards in a variety of prototype products. These included a digital still camera, but they also featured an MP3 music player in the form of a wrist watch, a camcorder, a mini-notebook PC, and a portable A/V player. Panasonic even thinks you'll want to store microwave-oven recipes on these cards, but that seems a bit far-fetched to me.
Sony Electronics, Park Ridge, N.J., shares a similar vision of the future pervasiveness of removable solid-state memory. At CES, it announced a variety of audio-video products that use its version of solid-state memory called Memory Stick. Sony currently offers Memory Sticks in 8-, 16-, 32-, and 64-Mbyte sizes.
At CES, Sony debuted its new Memory Stick Walkman, which goes on sale this month for about $400. It weighs only 2.5 oz and can store about 2 hours worth of MP3-format audio music on a 64-Mbyte Memory Stick. Also, Sony has Memory Stick-based voice recorders, computers, digital photo frames, printers, camcorders, and cameras. Prototype products demonstrated at the show included a portable music server, memory pen, line scanner, cell phone, electronic book, GPS personal terminal, and a video viewer.
In a separate announcement, Lexar Media said it would develop high-speed versions of the Memory Stick that would allow the downloading of 64 Mbytes of data in only 10 seconds. Sony is likewise working with Palm Computing to use Memory Stick media for data exchange with Palm-based products.
Sony is concentrating on marketing its expanding line of Memory Stick-based products. In an agreement with major electronics retailer Circuit City, 600 stores across the U.S. will soon be co-promoting the digital storage medium as a key part of future interoperability between consumer and computing products. Sony plans to bring out a 256-Mbyte Memory Stick product in 2001, and it is working on 1-Gbyte devices in the lab. Twenty-six companies are already licensing Memory Stick products and technology.
Last August, Panasonic (Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.), SanDisk Corporation of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Toshiba Corporation of Tokyo, Japan, formed an alliance to develop and promote the new SD Memory Card format. At CES, the three companies announced that they are leading a new industry-wide association formed to set standards for the new memory cards. Thus far, 71 companies, including most of the major consumer electronics companies, have stated their intentions to join the association. And, over 100 companies are expected to eventually join them.
So a confrontation between these two memory formats may be shaping up, with very high stakes. How it will shake out is still unclear, but marketing muscle will play a key roll. No matter who wins, however, the future of digital storage media will probably be dominated by DVD and removable solid-state memory.