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Sony pushes Memory Stick as mobile storage standard

The consumer electronics giant eyes cell phones and personal digital assistants as it attempts to establish its storage technology as an industry standard.

    Sony is eyeing cell phones and personal digital assistants as it attempts to establish its storage technology as an industry standard.

    The consumer electronics giant today announced plans to expand its Memory Stick storage technology by developing the Memory Stick Duo, the working name for a cartridge intended to boost the storage capacities of cell phones and PDAs.

    Sony said it also is working to expand the capabilities of the Memory Stick slot--the physical connection on devices that use the technology--to accept networking cards, which could make the technology more attractive to device manufacturers.

    The moves reflect Sony's ambition to make the Memory Stick, a piece of portable memory the size of a stick of chewing gum, the de facto storage standard for all mobile devices.

    There is no standard storage technology for portable devices, as there is with PC cards for notebook PCs. Some devices use Compact Flash cards, while some device makers, like Handspring with its Springboard cartridge, have developed their own proprietary form of storage or expansion technology.

    Sony is not the only company looking to establish a portable storage foothold. Start-up DataPlay said this week that it is launching a new disk-based storage format for portable devices. Priced around $10 for 500MB of storage, the disks are an inexpensive alternative to either Memory Stick or compact flash portable memory, both of which cost about $100 for 32MB.

    DataPlay's products, which will not be available until 2001, will come with built-in copy protection.

    Sony has released a slew of its own products using the Memory Stick technology, from portable digital music players to notebook PCs and digital camcorders.

    The company's goal is to expand the number of third-party device makers using Memory Stick, analysts say, which will then drive sales of Memory Sticks and Sony's own Memory Stick-compliant audiovisual and PC products. At the same time, the release of the Memory Stick Duo reflects Sony's ambition to target new voice-centric devices, such as so-called smart phones.

    "What Sony's trying to do is create a removable storage medium for the future," said David Thor, research director of ResearchPortal.com, noting that future Internet-enabled cell phones will need storage like that of the Memory Stick to enable basic PDA functions. "The market out there is huge."

    Sony says it has already shipped 2 million Memory Stick units worldwide, which it sees increasing to 20 million units by 2001. Currently, the Memory Sticks are used for storing and transferring images from digital cameras and digital music players to personal computers and laptops.

    Added to PDAs or data-enabled cell phones, Sony's Memory Stick could help alleviate data synchronization headaches between portable devices and PCs, analysts said.

    Although not available until 2001, the consumer electronics giant will almost certainly use the Memory Stick Duo in its own upcoming PDA, developed using Palm's operating system. The Sony-Palm PDA will be released sometime this year, according to a Sony spokesman, declining to comment on the specifications of the unannounced device.

    Palm in return has licensed Sony's Memory Stick technology. By adding networking capabilities to the Memory Stick slot, Sony is also potentially adding new communication capabilities to PDAs and other devices that use the technology.

    That type of capability falls in line with Sony's vision of allowing all manner of devices to communicate and swap information using Memory Stick, the spokesman said.

    The consumer electronics giant will almost certainly use the Memory Stick Duo in its own upcoming PDA, developed using Palm's operating system. Palm in return has licensed Sony's Memory Stick technology.

    By adding networking capabilities to the Memory Stick slot, Sony is potentially adding new communications capabilities to PDAs and other devices that use the technology.

    Sony is expected to release its Palm-based device later this year under its Vaio brand. The device is expected to offer basic PDA functions as well as wireless capabilities and a color display.

    The Memory Stick format could face some major stumbling blocks before becoming the standard that Sony envisions, analysts warn. One difficulty is ensuring that the Memory Stick works consistently in the wide range of devices and phones on the market. Further, there are potential obstacles coming from within Sony, which has already run into problems with its portable digital devices stemming from its music and content divisions.

    There is a perception that Sony digital music players are more difficult to use because the company had to appease its content divisions, which were nervous about the implications for digital copyright management. The potential for similar conflicts within different divisions is possible with future devices, Thor said.

    "It's as difficult for Sony to work from division to division as it is (for Sony) to work with Nokia and Ericsson," he said.