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Portable memory format gets set for launch

A consortium of consumer electronics makers plans to unveil next week a memory card format that holds one gigabyte of data and is smaller than rival Secure Digital.

A new year, a new portable memory card format.

A consortium of consumer electronics manufacturers next week will unveil a format for memory cards that will be smaller than Secure Digital (SD) cards, which are the size of postage stamps. The cards will connect to computers and other devices through a universal serial bus connector.

The format is the brainchild of a newly founded group called the Universal Transportable Memory Association (UTMA), Michael Minneman, a spokesman for the group, told CNET on Wednesday. It will put two flash memory chips in a a single package, like existing high-density cards from makers such as SanDisk; but it will place the processors side by side instead of stacking them.

Flash memory chart

The cards will be able to hold 1GB of data at first and add more capacity over time as the two chips become denser, according to Minneman.

"A lot of the initial impetus came from the camera manufacturers," he said. "The footprint is smaller than SD."

In addition to the new card design, UTMA plans to unveil a new architecture for storing data, called the Task Automated Data Structure.

Consumers, though, may wonder why another memory format is needed. Right now, several flash card formats--Memory Stick, SD, CompactFlash, MultiMediaCard, xD-Picture Card and Smart Media--are vying for supremacy in the marketplace and inadvertently creating confusion among consumers and incompatibility between devices. Many companies support one or more of these standards. In addition, companies behind many of the formats already on the market are promoting or developing miniaturized versions of those cards.

Still, skyrocketing sales are providing a motive for manufacturers to improve the basic technology and design of cards. The worldwide flash memory card market generated $1.7 billion in revenue in 2002, according to research firm IDC, which estimates that that total increased by more than 100 percent in 2003.

"Carriers in Asia have already begun to bundle cards with phones, which is a huge opportunity for flash cards," Mario Morales, an analyst at IDC, said in an interview earlier this month.

In addition to phones, flash cards are used in digital cameras, MP3 players and small video cameras like the one unveiled by Panasonic at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month.

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Hitachi and others are promoting mini-hard drives, which store more data but aren't always as reliable or shock resistant as flash memory, for consumer electronics.

Minneman would not discuss which companies were behind the new format, but indicated some were from Asia and were manufacturers of consumer electronics products. A representative from SanDisk, which makes a wide variety of memory cards, had not heard of the UTMA group, nor had an analyst contacted by CNET

UTMA's Web site indicates that further details of the memory card format will be unveiled on Feb. 5.

CNET's Richard Shim contributed to this report.