Flash Forward and One Step Back?

Confusion reigns in the memory-card market, warns Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern. Can one have too many formats and too little storage?

Many a junior futurist has pored over Alvin Tofflers 1971 opus "Future Shock" and looked for corroboration in the newspaper (or the mirror). A smaller number would envision a small consumer-market storage device as an epicenter of technological stress.

The culprit of the moment is memory-card storage, which rode into this weeks CeBIT America aboard a fleet of digital cameras, printers and next-generation cell phones with built-in photo and music-player capabilities. The number of these devices shown both on the show floor and behind the scenes was impressive, and each seems to have its own flavor of card.

When has there ever been such a variety of incompatible yet similar products, particularly in the storage arena? And this plethora of formats could pose a problem for consumers.

"Is there a chance for consumer confusion? Absolutely!" Gartner Inc. analyst Joseph Unsworth said. "There are already eight flash-card formats that are not intercompatible (excluding MMC/SD, depending on the size of the slot), but we are also seeing fragmentation within these formats.

"Cards like Memory Stick, Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard are targeting certain applications like mobile phones with smaller cards, [and features such as] lower voltages and security, which is adding confusion to an already confusing market," Unsworth added. He pointed to the various iterations of the MultiMediaCard format: Secure MMC; Reduced-size MMC (RS-MMC); and High-Speed MMC. "Fortunately, these are all compatible, but imagine if you are a consumer who is just looking for a card and you have all of these options in addition to all of the other cards [on the market]."

Of course, this proliferation has sparked a growing market for multiformat card readers. Depending on the generation, the readers support three, four or six different styles of cards. And even computer companies such as Gateway Inc. bundle a six-way reader with certain multimedia and consumer boxes.

In no way am I arguing against such useful products as memory cards and these efficient, cost-effective readers. However, its easy to feel cheated if you spend money on five slots and discover a while later that you really need two or three others.

Here are a couple more flash rants:

A number of vendors offer accelerated CompactFlash cards, usually dubbed ultra-speed or some other speedy name. These cards now use the ubiquitous "X" to signify differences in data-transfer rates, and customers can find 12X, 25X, 32X and 40X cards on the market. The "X" in this case means the same as it does for CDs: some multiple of 150 kilobytes per second, the speed of the original CD. So, a 32X-speed memory card will provide sustained-write data-transfer rates of almost 5MB per second.

Why are we using the "X," anyway? Its bad enough that it was used for CDs, but at least theres some history there. No consumer has a clue on how fast an "X" is anyway. Most professionals would have to get out the calculator to figure the actual performance. Cant we just have real speeds listed?

Tiny MiniSD disk atop a dime

In addition, Lexar Media Inc. offers lines of Write Acceleration (WA) CompactFlash cards, which require a compatible camera to support the high-speed write performance. When inserted into a non-WA-savvy camera, the card uses the standard CompactFlash protocols without the speed optimization. (According to a report on Rob Galbraiths Digital Photography Insights, Lexar recently provided a firmware fix for certain 32X and 40X cards.)

However, would a consumer understand this difference between Xs? The WA packaging says 40X or 32X, just like the other cards—yet another confusion.

Meanwhile, Im betting that some users will find these new super-small cards difficult to handle. SanDisk this month shipped its miniSD cards in Japan, and they look very small indeed. See Storage Web Digest for more of the story.

Small, lightweight and low-power are all worthy qualities. But sometimes a device can be too small for usability.

Can small-size technology mess up usability, or is smaller always better, especially when it comes to storage? E-mail me.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.