Seeking FISH Flash Storage at PMA

A consortium of electronics industry companies recently announced FISH, a new standard for a tiny, removable USB flash memory key. However, the format was hard to find at the recent Photo Marketing Association show in Las Vegas, one of the device's key ma

LAS VEGAS—The Universal Transportable Memory Association Inc. recently debuted "FISH," a new type of flash memory card for digital cameras and other devices. But so, far, FISH looks to be the one that got away.

The Flash Internal Semiconductor Hard-drive (FISH) format looks like a USB memory key, with a tiny rectangular printed circuit board the same width as the full-sized USB connector. The board will house a conventional flash chip and USB controller.

This design is much different than current memory keys that encircle the PCB with a large plastic shell, providing something for users to hold onto when the key is inserted and removed from the port.

Instead, the FISH shell is designed to be as thin as possible, to allow the entire module to slip completely inside a camera or MP3 player, much like the rival CompactFlash, xD, or other small form-factor flash cards.

The UMTA is licensing two FISH: a full-sized version and a "Baby FISH", roughly half the size of the larger FISH. The full-sized FISHs two-dimensional footprint will be about 398 sq. mm, said Michael Minneman, the UMTAs spokesman and member of the UMTAs business and technical staff. The full-size FISH is about a quarter the size of a Memory Stick; both sizes will come with a hook to attach a key ring.

Minneman said a protected area on the FISH would be reserved for Task Automation Data Structures, a UMTA-proprietary sector reserved for automating tasks between devices. TADS will also support data encryption in the future; the association hopes to hammer out a final security spec this quarter. FISH can also be write-protected via a switch, similar to other USB cards.

So far, the UMTA has done an excellent job baiting its hook in the media teasing FISHs launch. The associations massive Web site features a "news" page with links to the coverage it has received as well as a "Tech For Kids" section, that promises to donate a percentage of the standards licensing proceeds to needy schools through a non-profit the organization will set up.

The deluge of promotional information, however, contrasts sharply with the actual information the UMTA has released about FISHs backers. When asked how many members the UMTA counted, Minneman hesitated. "Let me think … Im not sure I can disclose that," he said. After some thought, he revealed the number: 22.

However, at last weeks Photo Marketing Association show here, that support was still under cover. Checking with digital camera vendors at the show, couldnt find a single company that had even heard of the specification, let alone planned to use it. And for its part, the UMTA has yet to name one company backing the FISH format.

"I suppose its possible that someone higher up has heard of this, but its certainly not a publicly announced initiative, and something I doubt has any great traction," one camera executive said, who asked not to be identified.

Part of the reason for the secrecy, Minneman said, is that the standard was formed informally. Over the course of a year, 47 people from 34 companies informally hashed out the FISH standard, Minneman said.

"At least one middle-sized" consumer electronics company is backing the standard, he said, and no semiconductor companies are involved. "If I tell you any more you could figure it out," he said.

"There was a strong desire among consumer electronics companies to adopt one device standard, to not be beholden to any one group," Minneman added.

At the same time, this ad hoc evolution status doesnt mean that the FISH standard will be royalty-free. Each FISH card maker will pay about 4 cents per memory card; consumer electronics companies building in FISH slots will be charged about 10 cents per device, with royalties capped at certain levels, depending upon the factors such as the type of the device and size of the supplier, Minneman said.

As part of the standard, each FISH supplier would be required to disclose the average data transfer rate of the flash memory, a detail which other flash manufacturers dont overtly label. For example, SanDisk readily discloses that its professional flash card products write data at 9MB per second and read at 10MBps. However, the company markets them under the vague label of "CompactFlash Extreme."

In addition, FISH makers would also be forced to disclose the power drawn by each FISH, in milliwatt-seconds per megabyte.

One question, of course, is whether the market needs yet another small-form-factor memory device, when several formats—SanDisk Corp.s CompactFlash, Sony Electronics Memory Stick, and the Toshiba Ltd. SD card, among others—are already fighting for slots in a variety of electronics products.

The UMTAs answer is that it hopes to hook customers by cutting through the snarl of competing formats with a device based on a ubiquitous technology PC users know very well: the Universal Serial Bus.

"The point is that we dont need another one [flash card standard]," said Michael Minneman, the UMTAs spokesman and member of the UMTAs business and technical staff. "What we need is just one."

Both consumers and consumer-electronics companies alike are frustrated by the number of proprietary flash card standards, he said.

/zimages/3/28571.gifThe sheer number of flash formats are confusing to consumers observed Storage Center Editor David Morgenstern. But are flash engineers also looking at usability? Click here to read more.

Analysts observed that the FISH format could face an uphill road in adoption by electronics vendors.

"From a technical standpoint, its very reasonable," said Jim Handy, a flash analyst for Semico Research Corp. in Phoenix. "From a getting-around-IP [intellectual property] standpoint, its not going to get around anything. The market advantage is not as strong an advantage as they see."

Still, the larger USB keys, almost unheard of two years ago, have quickly blossomed into a legitimate replacement for the floppy disk drive. PC makers have taken the space normally allocated for a floppy drive and replaced it with a flash card reader, which can accommodate all of the various types of flash cards, Handy said.

One thing was clear from PMA: the FISH moniker is memorable. Analyst Handy couldnt resist one FISH pun. He said another Semico analyst had predicted that the new FISH format would "scale well."

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