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Standards battle brewing over expansion devices

The drive to make portable devices upgradeable and expandable may be creating a new standards battle that could cause customer headaches, analysts say.

    The drive to make portable devices upgradeable and expandable may be creating a new standards battle that could cause customer headaches, analysts say.

    Almost every new portable device on the market today promises expandability in the form of add-on cartridges for more storage or additional features. Using these add-ons, handheld devices can be turned into digital music players, and cell phones can be transformed into personal digital assistants (PDAs). A slot for external memory can also let consumers swap photos or songs relatively easily.

    There is a catch, however. Most of these add-on devices use different connection or storage technologies that don't work with other products, and analysts say there is no clear standard on the horizon.

    Although consumers of cutting-edge technology have likely grown used to this type of situation, it hampers development. Standards tend to bring down prices and drive third-party development, analysts say, and in the long run they increase how widely these technologies are used.

    "The user doesn't care that their Pocket PC and Palm are not interoperable," said David Thor, a mobile analyst with ResearchPortal.com. "But when you talk about multiple devices, the consumer would care if the storage medium was transferable between complementary devices."

    Last week, Palm announced it would work to integrate support of the Secure Digital (SD) card into its operating system and future devices. The support comes despite the fact that two of its partners, Sony and Handspring, have each developed add-on technologies, with the Memory Stick and Springboard cartridges, respectively. SD, Memory Stick and Springboard products are not interoperable.

    In the opposing camp, PDAs based on Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system generally include a Compact Flash expansion slot. Compact Flash (CF), which includes SmartMedia brand expansion cards, offers extra memory and can be pre-loaded with applications or games. CF slots also can be fitted with add-on cards offering wireless modems and other connectivity options.

    Portable digital music players further muddy the waters. S3's Rio, for example, uses Compact Flash cards, but it will eventually be able to use DataPlay's upcoming 500MB portable storage media, according to Mike Reed, director of product marketing for the Rio.

    Iomega recently announced a digital music player based on its Clik drive, a portable version of its long-running Zip storage product.

    And today, Casio announced it would market a portable MP3 player using traditional rewritable CDs rather than any of the miniature solid-state memory options. The $160 Casio MP3 player will play both CDs and MP3 files stored on CDs, rather than Compact Flash or Memory Stick options.

    Storage options
    How the different formats compare
    Format Who uses it Cost
    Compact Flash Casio, HP $150 for 64MB card
    Memory Stick Sony $139 for 64MB card
    Secure Digital Palm, Matsushita n/a
    Clik Disk Iomega $10 for 40MB disk
    DataPlay S3 n/a*
    * expected to be comparable to a blank cassette tape
    IBM recently weighed in with a mini-storage option called the Microdrive, which fits into a CF slot. Big Blue hopes the storage will find its way into devices using CF expansion slots.

    All these competing storage technologies mean that prices for add-on MP3 and digital camera cards, like those for Sony and Handspring devices, as well as extra storage for PDAs and phones, will remain relatively high, analysts say. Currently, a 64MB Memory Stick card is priced at $139, according to Sony. Most Springboard products are priced between $100 and $200. The base model of the Handspring Visor costs $149.

    Comes with the territory
    The situation is more of a nuisance than a real hindrance, analysts say, because the market is just developing.

    "There's a level of incompatibility that people have come to accept," said Matt Sargent, a handheld analyst with market research firm ARS. "Frustration will be an issue in the short term, but people have learned to live with it. You don't expect your Sega games to work in your PlayStation."

    Nonetheless, as the lines between cell phones, PDAs and digital music players continue to blur, consumers may demand better levels of interoperability, according to Thor.

    Sony products offer this type of interoperability, because most of them support the Memory Stick, but this type of homogeneity is not likely in a majority of households, he said.

    In addition, the proliferation of add-on standards poses problems for third-party hardware and software builders with limited resources, who must bet their companies' fortunes on which standard they think will prevail. These companies often do not have the cash to create two or three versions of the same product for different devices.

    "I think it's a little tough on the people who make the peripherals," said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. "Developers are clearly going to have some top priorities and some lower priorities."

    In these cases, companies that do not charge licensing fees may have an edge in attracting developers, according to Ideo's Dennis Boyle, who helped design the Palm V and has created a Springboard digital music add-on cartridge.

    "The Springboard is a great idea, and Handspring has gone overboard to encourage inventors by careful documentation and no licensing fees," Boyle said.

    Palm chose SD to support in its own products because of the consortium of 500 companies working to create products based on the technology and the elegance of the add-on cards themselves, according to Alan Kessler, chief operating officer at Palm.

    "SD has a lot of really big companies behind it," he said. "And the...tiny form factor is really important."

    Eventually, the need for these add-on cards will disappear, as companies like Palm and Microsoft work to add the functions the cartridges offer into their operating systems, Sargent said. In the meantime, however, SD is Dulaney's pick for the top contender to win the standards battle.

    "Compact Flash has its advantages, but it was never architected to do plug-and-play," he said. "Handspring probably has the best-thought-out design, but they should have tried to make it a standard, and now Palm has gone off on another direction. Sony is probably the odd man out; like all Sony standards, Memory Stick will work with Sony, but nothing else."