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The Super-Sized Flash Wars Rage On
Posted Mar 4, 2004 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Research firm IDC estimates that the already-booming flash storage card market ($1.7 billion revenue generated in 2002) grew by more than 100% in 2003. As the demand for multi-megapixel digital cameras (and to a lesser degree, currently, digital camcorders) grows, so too does the clamoring for higher-capacity, on-board portable storage. Not to disappoint, the end of 2003 and early 2004 saw a host of announcements responding to just this demand.

Secure Digital (SD), which became the most popular flash memory card in the U.S. with 39% of the retail sales in November 2003 (according to research company NPD Techworld), got another boost when SanDisk, the world's largest manufacturer of all things flash, shipped its 1GB SD card at the end of January for a retail price of $499.99. Previous versions of SD offered no more than 512MB. SanDisk worked with Sharp's Integrated Circuits Group to develop a die-stacking process, dubbed 3D-SiP (Three-Dimensional System in Package), for SD that allows for twice as much memory to be housed in the same vertical space of the card's original form factor. While this bump in capacity bodes well for SD's continued pre-eminence, the 3D-SiP technology can theoretically be applied to other flash cards, such as CompactFlash and Memory Stick, SD's advantage might be short-lived.

Memory Stick, considered by some to be SD's main competition for market dominance in the secure flash memory card market, had a major announcement of its own (and SanDisk had its second) in January. At CES, SanDisk debuted the 2GB Memory Stick PRO along with its smaller—in both capacity and physical size—cousin Memory Stick PRO Duo. Duo maxes out at 512MB for $224.99 and is intended for use in smaller devices as well as to provide an answer to miniSD, which was announced in March 2003. The $1,000 Memory Stick PRO positions Sony to offer a viable storage alternative to miniDV tape for its digital camcorder customers (the 2GB leaves room for roughly 14 minutes of DV and 30 minutes of Sony's favored MicroMV MPEG-2 format). Both new cards also have safeguards that prevent data loss in the case of accidental removal while in use. At press time, SanDisk planned to ship them in February.

As is often the case, good things come in threes. Earlier in the year, SanDisk announced two new capacities for the CompactFlash format, 2 and 4GB. While CompactFlash was the original king of flash, its lack of security and larger form factor have caused it to lose ground recently as consumer devices grow smaller and smaller. That said, for the digital video pro, what matters most is volume and value, and CompactFlash has both in offering twice the capacity of the next one down (the aforementioned Memory Stick PRO) for the same cost, $999.99. Both 2 and 4GB CompactFlash cards are available now.

Not to be forgotten, the MultiMediaCard format pre-empted its gig-race rivals in September at Computex when ATP Electronics became the first to market with the 1GB MultiMediaCard. With their format best known in some circles for its role as SD's direct ancestor, the MultiMediaCard Association hopes to bring MMC back to the forefront with their proposed Secure MultiMediaCard. The upgrade would be targeted to meet the requirements of the secure copyright protection markets. The next generation of MultiMediaCard, MMC 4.0, is slated to accelerate the current version's speed eightfold, two times faster than standard SD cards, while also featuring dual voltage (3V/1.8V). Pretec plans to demo the technology in Q2 2004.

Thought by some to be on the lonely road to obsolescence, the SmartMedia format has enjoyed a resurgence of late, parlaying its position as the cheapest flash media card into an opportunity to create an entirely new avenue for content delivery. am3 hopes to utilize SmartMedia cards to transform a GameBoy Advance into a mobile content platform capable of exploiting markets such as music, flash animation, anime, and even karaoke. The company also foresees the possibility of original content being developed specifically for this platform in the form of promotional videos, short films, and more. With products already on sale in Japan, am3 hopes to bring the technology to the U.S. in the first half of 2004 and Europe in the second half. Prices for the card adapter should be around $25, and $20 for the SmartMedia cards loaded with content.

Much of the hoopla and hurrah surrounding these latest flash card offerings may be lost on the digital video post-production professional, who cares less about how to get information from camera or camcorder to computer than how to move large digital video files from their desktop to their laptop, or vice versa. For these users the ease of USB flash drives and their plug-and-play capabilities might be the ticket. At CES, Lexar Media announced that it has doubled the capacity of its JumpDrive 2.0, which can now transfer a full 2GB in under six minutes. JumpDrive shipped in February with a retail price of $999.99.

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