Game over for SmartMedia? (UPDATED)|
(Tuesday, July 16, 2002 - 02:04 EDT)
French website posts rumors of a new flash memory format, then withdraws the article...
Chasseurs d'Images, the French magazine / website which has so many times in the past posted news of the latest digital product well in advance of NDA expiration dates, has again posted something we've not seen anywhere else on the web - this time news that the SmartMedia flash format has reached the end of the line and is soon to be replaced.
The article has suddenly been withdrawn, and we wouldn't want to speculate as to whether this is because Chasseurs has found its information to be incorrect, or has been given a slap on the wrist for leaking accurate info... If the information posted earlier on is true, though, it will likely come as a surprise to the thousands of digicam users who've purchased digital cameras based on SmartMedia.
We'd not expect SmartMedia to vanish any time soon - there are too many SmartMedia-based products already 'in the wild' for manufacturers to ignore the opportunity of selling more flash cards - but it might well mean that development on larger cards ceases. Users have long anticipated a larger SmartMedia card - Samsung had been rumored to be preparing a 256MB type - but currently, capacities for the format have stalled at 128MB. In the meantime, CompactFlash, MemoryStick, MultiMediaCard and Secure Digital are all available in higher capacities.
SmartMedia was the format of choice for digital cameras several years ago, when capacity demands were much lower; the cards were fast, and undeniably small and light. Problems early on with the fact that the cards contained no intelligence though (the camera contains the controller - the SmartMedia card itself could actually be called 'dumb'!) led to an embarrassing series of problems as first 8MB, then 16MB, 32MB and 64MB releases were accompanied by many products requiring firmware upgrades, manufacturer service - or just plain being incompatible. This, accompanied to the larger capacities available elsewhere and strong marketing by for example, Sony for its Memory Stick, has led to a steep decline in SmartMedia market share.
What of the new card? Well, Chasseurs suggests that it will be called The xD Picture Card, or "x-Data" card. It would initially ship in capacities of 16MB, 32MB, 64MB, 128MB, 256MB, 512MB and 1GB. Yes, you read that right - one gigabyte cards at launch! The picture may not be as rosy as it would seem though - xD's supporters would be starting from scratch, which would inevitably mean small unit sales volumes at the beginning - usually accompanied by higher prices, or initial losses for the manufacturer. Here, CompactFlash and MemoryStick (plus MMC and SD to a lesser extent) have a head-start - numerous products exist for the current formats, and they sell in large quantities, allowing relatively high profit margins or low costs to the user, as the manufacturer prefers.
xD manufacturers may find themselves in somewhat of a "chicken and the egg" situation initially - card sales held back by lack of users, and potential users scared off by yet another flash memory format which may or may not succeed. Herein lies the problem faced by proprietary formats, in that users seem to subconsciously understand that if a format is only manufactured and used by a small number of companies, it is somewhat more likely to fail, and product prices may be higher than products manufactured by companies using a more 'standardised' format.
If the xD format does indeed turn out to be a fact and not a myth, then good luck to its proponents - SmartMedia is certainly due for an overhaul! 128MB cards are simply not enough for some of today's higher-resolution cameras, as has tacitly been acknowledged by slipping CompactFlash slots into certain cameras alongside the SmartMedia slot. The luck may turn out to be needed at the very beginning of what will be an arduous struggle to rise to supremacy in the tightly-fought flash memory market...
UPDATED 2002-07-16 12:26ET: The Chasseurs d'Images article has been resurrected; note that you'll find a small image of an xD card in the header graphic.
Another European website, this time in Germany, has also posted information on the xD format, including a low-resolution monochrome image showing front and back of the card, and the new logo.
According to the German item, the new format is jointly developed by Olympus and Fujifilm, and the cards are somewhat similar to SD/MMC - using NAND flash and multi-level cell technology, avoiding the capacity problems encountered by SmartMedia. The cards are smaller overall than SmartMedia cards, but thicker to avoid torsional (twisting/bending) damage. Likewise, the wide contact areas on the SmartMedia card which lead to a higher risk of electrostatic damage, replaced with thin contact strips more similar to what is found on Memory Sticks and certain other flash formats. The cards are to be manufactured by Toshiba on an OEM basis. There's also a possibility of another version of the card incorporating copy protection, similar to what has occurred with certain other memory cards.