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Flash card makers bump up the volume

The two biggest makers of flash memory cards are introducing formats with higher capacities in hopes of capturing a larger piece of the growing digital-camera market.

The two biggest makers of flash memory cards are loading up formats with higher capacities, aiming to capture a larger piece of the growing digital-camera market.

On Thursday, Lexar Media introduced CompactFlash cards that can hold up to 8GB of data and unveiled a 1GB Secure Digital card at the Photo Marketing Association show in Las Vegas. Also at the show, rival card maker SanDisk announced a 4GB card CompactFlash card.

The companies are targeting the rapidly growing digital-camera market, which has been a key catalyst in the growth of demand for removable flash memory cards. Digital photographers need at least one card for their cameras, and they generally opt for higher capacities, which allow them to swap out cards or download images to a PC less often.

Cameras accounted for about 60 percent of demand worldwide for flash memory cards in 2003, according to research firm IDC. Camera shipments are expected to increase 27 percent, to about 55 million this year, from 43 million worldwide last year. By 2007, shipments are projected to reach 81 million.

The worldwide flash memory card market generated $1.7 billion in revenue in 2002, and that total increased by more than 100 percent last year, according to IDC estimates.

"Sports photographers, photojournalists and adventure photographers often lack the time and ability to change memory cards, as doing so might mean missing the action or actually putting themselves in physical danger," John Omvik, director of professional products marketing at Lexar Media, said in a statement. "Eight gigabytes of space allows these photographers to shoot continuously, even in remote, extreme or hectic situations, where it is difficult to change memory cards."

Although high-capacity cards are mainly aimed at professional cameras, they could also be put into competition with mini hard drives, which have become popular in portable media players.

However, the cards tend to be more expensive than rival technologies. Lexar Media said it plans to begin selling its 8GB card in May but did not disclose pricing. SanDisk plans to make its 4GB CompactFlash card available in April for $999.99. In comparison, IBM's 4GB Microdrive, which it expects to launch on Feb. 20, will sell for $499.

Lexar Media's 1GB Secure Digital card will be available this spring for $499.99.

Also at the trade show, Lexar Media launched Secure Digital cards with 9MB-per-second write speeds, designed to enable photographers to capture images faster. The 256MB card will cost $109.99, and the 512MB card will cost $269.99, both to be released this spring.

SD task force
In related news, the SD Card Association announced on Thursday that it has finalized specifications meant to encourage e-commerce on cell phones. It has formed a group to work with wireless carriers and handset makers to make sure that the card format meets their needs, the trade association said.

The specifications are designed to make cell phone interchanges such as bank transactions, micropayments and content downloads secure. To do so, they use authentication schemes such as public key infrastructure, personal identification numberss and schemes the Open Mobile Alliance supports.

The group, called the Mobile Phone Task Force, includes representatives from companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Infineon, Microsoft, Motorola, NEC, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Samsung, SyChip and Toshiba. It plans to work to ensure that the long-term development of the SD format will take into account the concerns of wireless carriers and handset makers.