TOKYO ( ChipWire) -- You may soon find yourself fishing for stamp-sized memory cards among your pocket change.
Such small storage cards made of flash memories are in position to become a universal medium for off-line digital content that enables the exchange of personal data or entertainment content among various digital consumer electronics products. Several proposed formats are now vying to become the de facto storage medium for consumer electronics products. Many of them, and their benefits to consumers, will be showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) early next month in Las Vegas.
Stimulated by bright market forecasts, many chip manufacturers, card manufacturers and consumer electronics manufacturers have jumped onto the storage-card bandwagon. So far, six compact flash card formats have been proposed, each specifying a card that's smaller than a PCMCIA card and each targeting mainly consumer applications.
The contenders are the CompactFlash card format proposed by Sandisk Corp., and the SmartMedia card proposed by Toshiba Corp. These formats were the original rivals in the nascent digital still camera market.
When digital music downloading became popular, the compact Multimedia Card (MMC) format proposed by Sandisk and Siemens AG (now Infineon Technologies) attracted the attention of MP3 player manufacturers.
Sony Corp. proposed Memory Stick, a card shaped like a stick of chewing gum, which it introduced to the consumer market in November 1998. Since then, Sony has demonstrated the card in a variety of digital consumer products. Separately, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., Sandisk and Toshiba announced a competing format called the Secure Digital (SD) card in August this year. The SD card is the same size as the MMC and uses the same connector, though the SD card has nine pins and the MMC has seven.
Earlier this month, Sanyo Electric, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and Infineon announced plans to join the already-crowded market with another new format named Secure MMC, an extension of the MMC.
The SD group plans to announce its business strategy and name the first supporters of its card at CES. And Sony plans to make a presentation on its Memory Stick at CES, following one it made at Comdex/Fall in November.
The CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick and MMC formats and products are incompatible. The SD card and Secure MMC are based on the MMC format, and are backwards compatible with MMC, but not with each other. MMC was co-developed by Sandisk and Siemens about five years ago; Sandisk now supports SD, while Infineon is committed to Secure MMC.
CompactFlash and SmartMedia have been harshly vying for a stake in the digital still camera market, and MMC and SmartMedia are battling in the MP3 player market. But when the material stored on any of the cards shifts to music and other content protected by copyright, a card's copyright protection scheme becomes a fundamentally important factor.
"Conventional memory chips did not have any scheme to protect copyright, but for an audio/video application, it is essential. That's why we proposed a new SD format," said Sukeichi Miki, managing director in charge of corporate R&D at Matsushita.
Sandisk and Toshiba agree with Matsushita on this point, and have united to compete against Sony's Memory Stick. The Secure MMC latecomer will be a third entrant in this race. All three of these cards are designed to be compliant with the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI)'s specifications announced last July.
With SDMI specifications in place, the delivery of copyright-protected music is expected to raise demand for many of the compact cards, and is now considered the primary application for many of the formats.
To protect stored data, Sony used its proprietary Magic Gate and Open MG technology in the Memory Stick Walkman that it made available in Japan earlier this month simultaneously with the launch of Sony Music Entertainment Inc.'s music distribution service.
The Memory Stick Walkman is scheduled to hit the U.S. market in January. But Sony hasn't yet made clear whether Sony Music will make an electronic music distribution (EMD) service available in the United States timed to coincide with the marketing of Memory Stick Walkman. "Memory Stick Walkman does not necessarily need an EMD service. At the beginning, we expect that ripping the duplication via a PC of a digital music title will be the major use of the walkman," said Masaharu Yanaga, manager of Business Strategy Section of Memory Stick Division at Sony.
A PC with Sony's Open MG and Memory Stick will be able to accept digital music titles from a CD or over a network via MP3 or Atrac3 (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding 3). These titles will be encrypted and compressed in the Atrac3 format. OpenMG permits only three copies of a file to be made from a Memory Stick Walkman.
The SD group is preparing specifications for downloading music, and will rely on Advanced Audio Coding as a compression scheme. Its copy protection scheme will be based on the encryption technology Matsushita has already used in its DVD products. Details of these plans will be disclosed at CES.
Though the members of the SD group are using the same SD card, the EMD service and music player of each will differ.
Matsushita will be the first of the group to launch network audio distribution in the United States, beginning this spring. "Answering the request from U.S. record companies, we have been working on establishing a copyright protection system since about two years ago," said Miki.
Matsushita, AT&T, BMG Entertainment and Universal Music Group have been working jointly to develop and test secure digital music distribution and rights management since May. These four companies have almost completed the EMD system in terms of sound quality, copyright protection and fare correction, said Miki.
Toshiba plans to announce an SD-based music player in the first quarter of next year, ahead of volume production of the SD card, which will follow in the second quarter.
"There are various combinations of compression technology and music distribution systems. What scheme will major record companies choose? Toshiba is considering whether to use an existing one or an original one," said Jiro Yoshii, general manager of the Mediacard Strategic Planning Group in Toshiba's Corporate Development Center.
Sanyo, Fujitsu, Hitachi and Infineon plans to launch a portable-phone-based music distribution service using the Secure MMC card and the universal distribution with access control-media base (UDAC-MB) copyright protection scheme developed by Fujitsu, Hitachi and Sanyo. They plan to use established cellular phone networks along with music kiosks set up in the streets and in stores for distribution, but the actual launch time of the service has not been disclosed. Service will begin in Japan, the companies said.
The cards will not be limited to audio player applications, however. Both Sony and Matsushita will show dozens of mock-ups at CES, such as printers, digital still cameras, camcorders, set-top boxes, audio mini-component systems, wristwatch-type players, photo viewers, cellular phones, cell phones with still camera, e-mailers, handy scanners, multimedia stations/players and notebook computers, all of which will have slots for either the Memory Stick or SD card.
Sony began Memory Stick development in December 1997 after Sony president Nobuyuki Idei said the company need to "create new applications by connecting digital equipment." Memory Stick was the first project tackled by Vaio Center, Sony's virtual R&D company, as a two-year project. Sony has showed a variety of mock-ups to demonstrate how Memory Stick will be used to link digital equipment.
Matsushita also showed a variety of prototype systems at the Japan Consumer Electronics Show last October. "A digital consumer electronics network is not limited to fixed wire. The card will form a link," said Sakon Nagasaki, director of the AV Media Card Business Development Office at Matsushita. Matsushita is seriously planning to commercialize all of the prototypes "within two years," he said.
Toshiba is also working on SD-based products for consumers, mainly at its Digital Media Co., according to Yoshii of Toshiba. Toshiba calls the card a "bridge media," especially in connection with the PC environment. Eventually, "we'd like to offer a bridge for PCs, such as PCs with SD slots and PC Card interfaces," he said.
Among small flash cards, only Sony's Memory Stick is currently available in the market.
"We have a series of products -- IC card record, Walkman, Aibo a pet robot -- which accept Memory Stick," said Sony's Yanaga. "Compared with SD card, for example, Memory Stick has about a half-year lead," he added. Sony has shipped about 3 million Memory Stick units this year and expects to ship 10 million units next year.
The high price of the compact flash cards compared with larger-sized flash cards is seen as a big challenge.
"For personal-use memory, 1,000 yen about $10 is the maximum price that is accepted in the consumer electronics market," said Nagasaki of Matsushita. "To penetrate into consumers widely, we must close the gap between the current flash card price and the consumer market requirement."
Toshiba expects the price of flash memory chips to drop by 30% every year, according to Yasuo Morimoto, president and chief executive officer of Toshiba Semiconductor Co. "In terms of finer process and multi-level technology, I believe NAND flash has the advantage," he said.
Toshiba has already achieved an 80% yield rate for both its 64- and 128-megabit parts, and it plans to shrink from its current 0.20-micron process to a 0.16-micron process, skipping 0.18 micron.
"The effect of a chip shrink is large," Morimoto said. Toshiba plans to introduce multi-level technology to its NAND flash memory in 2001, "when the price should drop largely," he said.
The new technology could have a big impact on the flash industry itself. The demand for flash memory is expected to reach $8 billion by 2003, according to market researcher In-Stat, and shortages of the chips are already starting to appear (see Dec. 21 story).
While attention is fixed on secured small cards, established cards aren't ready to fade away. The CompactFlash card is already widely used in Microsoft Windows CE-based and other equipment. And several of the smaller formats hold sway even for individual suppliers. Sandisk, for example, will carry both MMC and SD cards, said Nelson Chan, vice president of marketing at Sandisk.
"One slot can accommodate both MMC and SD," Chan said. "All SD slots will be backward compatible with MMC. It will be up to the customer to choose between MMC and SD. Sandisk will support both products as long as customers want it."