Sony preparing updated Memory Stick? (UPDATED)|
(Friday, December 13, 2002 - 01:29 EST)
An article on c|net News.Com (and mirrored on ZDNet News) suggests that Sony are preparing to release an overhaul of their Memory Stick media which is tentatively being dubbed Memory Stick Pro.
According to c|net's article (which is identical to that on ZDNet with the exception of the headline), the cards will be launched at the upcoming International CES show in Las Vegas, Nevada to be held from January 9th - 12th. Capacities are rumored as 256MB, 512MB and 1GB - news that is very welcome, as the Memory Stick format (which was first announced in July 1998 with capacities of 4 and 8MB) has stalled since the first 128MB cards began shipping in mid - late 2001.
What may upset Memory Stick users if c|net's info proves accurate, though, is that at least some Memory Stick products will be unable to support Memory Stick Pro cards. It isn't clear whether any existing products will already support Memory Stick Pro, or will be able to be upgraded to do so (we don't even know if the hardware format will remain the same) - but the news that even some products won't be able to take advantage of the new capacities comes as an unhappy surprise.
As long ago as November 1999 at Fall Comdex, Sony press releases stated that "Memory Stick media [is] designed for capacity expansion with up to 64MB storage ... and a near-term roadmap for 128MB, 256MB and even higher capacity." Only two months later, Sony Consumer Products Marketing Group president Fujio Nishida was quoted by Steve Smith of Cahners Business Information's "This Week in Consumer Electronics" website as saying that capacities of 1GB were "coming soon".
At Comdex Fall in November 2001 - as 128MB cards were just becoming readily available - the company actually showed mockups of standard and MagicGate Memory Stick cards labelled as "256MB". A year later, the cards have not materialized - and c|net's article suggests that the only way the original Memory Stick format could be extended to allow 256MB cards would be to manufacture double-sided cards that would require the user to eject the card, flip a microswitch and reinsert the card upside down when they were full. It is doubtful users would be satisfied with a solution that would in effect be little different to carrying two 128MB cards and swapping them when required.
We'd caution readers that we have yet to independently verify c|net's information, although we do have an inquiry pending with our contacts at Sony and are endeavoring to uncover the full story. That said, c|net is a large and usually reliable source, and the article directly attributes a statement that an "official announcement is still weeks away and ... details of the new format could change" to unnamed "Sony representatives". This statement in itself would tend to indicate that Sony does plan to announce something related to the Memory Stick format soon, which would lend some credibility to the story. This is further supported by something noticed by our friends at the Digital Photography Review - that the "Road Map" showing future Memory Stick capacity plans has been quietly removed from the official Memory Stick website.
It seems unlikely that Sony would have painted itself into a corner with projections of larger capacity Memory Sticks had it not believed it could fulfill those promises, nor would the company have much to gain from releasing a new card that existing Memory Stick users could not use - in effect having to relaunch its format from scratch. In fact Sony would seem to have the potential to lose customers, if it turns out that when existing Memory Stick users next upgrade their products they will not be able to use their existing stock of Memory Stick cards. The most likely scenario seems to be that, for whatever reason, the company has been unable to commercialize the 256MB and larger Memory Sticks that it believed it would be able to.
Even multinational corporations can make mistakes - for example, multiple manufacturers of personal digital assistants (PDAs) have had to admit that their creations did not offer the claimed color depth on their displays, in one case due to an incorrectly specified component that had been used in the products that had been shipped.
Perhaps even more relevant to the situation is the tale of the SmartMedia format - which was plagued early in its life by repeated problems as larger capacity cards were released. Some manufacturers of SmartMedia-based products offered end-user or manufacturer-applied firmware upgrades to allow use of larger cards; others simply noted that their legacy products did not support the higher capacities that they were followed by. Eventually, the SmartMedia format reached the same capacity limit that it appears Sony may now have come up against - SmartMedia cards above 128MB were rumored, but never shipped, and the format has now been superceded by Olympus and Fujifilm's joint xD-Picture Card format.
We can understand the attraction for manufacturers of offering products using a media format from which they can derive further revenues, but at the end of the day it would be much better for consumers if companies could standardize on one single format. To take the obvious example, when VCRs were first becoming commonplace there were multiple formats offered - Betamax and VHS. This did have the benefit of spurring competition to develop a good format in the first place, but had a definite downside to consumers who needed to be able to buy cassettes for their particular format, and wanted to be able to trade videos with friends and family. Betamax failed, VHS prospered, and consumers benefited from a widely used format that allowed them to continue to access their media regardless of whose VCR they bought. Digital camera owners could benefit greatly from a similar standardization, and at the end of the day we don't believe the market is going to allow more than perhaps two or three formats to survive.
By comparison to the problems already suffered by SmartMedia, and perhaps now coming for Memory Stick, one format in particular stands out as having withstood the test of time and managing to become widespread - that being CompactFlash. Yes, there are two different types of CompactFlash cards commonly available, Type-I and Type-II - but they differ only in the thickness of the card. Users who want the smallest and lightest camera can opt for Type-I compatibility only, whilst users who favor high capacities can opt for the slightly larger slot and accept both types of cards. Capacities of 1GB have been available for some time, and working versions with a whopping capacity of 3GB were recently demonstrated by Pretec. Add the fact that CompactFlash has allowed a wide range of other uses such as for wireless and wired LAN cards, BlueTooth cards and much, much more and you have a format that has already proven its versatility, and delivered storage capacities that far exceed any other readily available, compact format.
We're continuing to see new formats announced, however - and we'd expect to see this continue as companies vie to be behind one of the formats that eventually does become a standard. Should they succeed, they stand to make a lot of money from media sales, and licensing the format to other companies. As much as we'd like to see companies place the interests of the consumer first and settle for an existing format rather than creating a new one, the real world dictates that companies have to put potential profits for their shareholders first. As long as consumers are willing to buy cameras using a variety of media formats, we'll see new formats coming and going to meet that demand. Once consumers settle on a format that meets their needs and that format becomes a de facto standard, companies will have nothing to gain from attempting to compete with that standard - and plenty of development money to lose. As always, the consumer can control the cycle with a decision as simple as who they support with their hard-earned cash. ;)
We'll keep a close watch on Sony's plans for MemoryStick, and should we be able to independently confirm c|net's report, you'll hear it here. Watch this space!
UPDATED 2002-12-13 18:33ET: Sony has now publicly responded to c|net's article, which it says contains "several inaccuracies". Please read our newer article for more information.