December 12, 2002 4:00 AM PST

New Memory Stick to forget older devices

Read more about removable memory cards
Sony is close to unveiling a new, higher-capacity version of its popular Memory Stick removable flash memory card. But sources say it won't be compatible with some older devices.

Expected to be announced at next month's Consumer Electronics Show, the new Memory Stick uses a different architecture to achieve higher capacities than the original card, sources said. Current Memory Stick cards top out at 128MB, but the new cards will come in 256MB, 512MB and 1GB capacities.

The new cards are also designed to allow for higher performance levels than the previous card format, so devices should be better able to perform high-end functions, such as playing streaming video.

The final name for the upcoming version of the format has yet to be finalized, but the current working name is Memory Stick Pro.

Sony representatives said that the official announcement is still weeks away and cautioned that details of the new format could change. The company declined to comment further.

In order to achieve the higher capacity and performance levels, Sony was forced to drop support for some devices built for the current Memory Stick format, sources said. It remains unclear what upgrade options will be available to current device owners to make their devices compatible with the new format.

One source familiar with Sony's Memory Stick overhaul said the company had planned to introduce the new format around the third quarter of this year, but pulled back after receiving negative feedback from early reviewers who panned the format's lack of compatibility with older devices.

Sony has been working on another option to increase the capacity of its original Memory Stick format. The new card would be backward compatible with devices that come with a Memory Stick slot, but top out at 256MB. The card would access 128MB on one side and require the user to take the card out of the device and flip a tiny switch to access the other 128MB of capacity.

Memory Stick cards fit into slots that are built into devices, such as digital cameras and handhelds. The cards let consumers store data, and in some cases, expand the capabilities of a device. For example, a Memory Stick card with a built-in digital camera can be added to a handheld device through a Memory Stick slot.

Rivers of Sticks--but a sticky situation
As of mid-November, there were 376 companies supporting the Memory Stick format, including consumer-electronics giant Samsung Electronics.

Sony unveiled its very small Memory Stick at Comdex. Memory Stick, introduced in 1998, has been the third-most-shipped removable flash memory card so far in 2002, with 13.1 million units, behind CompactFlash and SmartMedia, according to research company IDC. Sony originally developed the format, and in 2001 began working more closely with developers and media manufacturers on the format's evolution and on improving its distribution.

Memory Stick Pro will be entering a crowded market, and some analysts said they believe additional offerings will only confuse consumers and slow market growth.

Among the other major removable flash memory card formats are Secure Digital, MultiMediaCard, SmartMedia, CompactFlash and xD-Picture Card, with several other smaller versions targeting cell phones, such as Memory Stick Duo and Reduced Size MultiMediaCard, on the way.

Sony's Memory Stick Duo and adaptor. Mario Morales, an analyst with IDC, said the market can probably support three formats at most.

"What the market needs is standardization to really grow," Morales said. "The more formats, the more consumers are confused, which delays adoption."

Of Sony's plans to release a new format, Morales said the move could be designed to let the company offer a range of removable flash memory cards, from smaller, cell phone-oriented cards to high-capacity cards. However, the risk is that the strategy will slow adoption of the Memory Stick.

 

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