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Start-up aims to grab chunk of portable storage market

Storage upstart DataPlay is making a run at providing a new, high-capacity storage technology for small devices such as music players and digital cameras.

    Storage start-up DataPlay is making a run at providing a new, high-capacity storage technology for small devices such as music players and digital cameras that it hopes will be the floppy drive of the Internet appliance era.

    Boulder, Colo.-based DataPlay is launching a new technology aimed at consumer electronics companies for recording and storing content from digital cameras, e-books, handheld devices and portable digital music players. The discs, which will have to compete in a crowded market for portable storage, will be able to hold several albums worth of music on what looks like a miniaturized CD slightly larger than a quarter.

    The company expects the discs to retail for about $5 to $10, which would make them an affordable alternative to the more expensive flash memory cards that predominate in the digital camera and digital music player markets.

    Executives with the company say a $10 DataPlay disc is expected to be able to store 10 hours of music, or 500MB of data, compared with about two hours, or 64MB of data, on current flash memory cards. Another expected advantage: With built-in copy protection technology, the discs would be cheap enough to be sold with prerecorded content such as music or text.

    DataPlay is aiming to have the technology built into devices by early 2001, but it has some significant hurdles to overcome if the technology is to catch on, beginning with the need to quickly sign up as many device manufacturers as possible.

    "You can have an innovative idea, but if you don't have someone to build for it, you might as well scrap it," said Tim Scannell, industry analyst with Mobile Insights consultancy.

    "The challenge (for DataPlay) will be to market (the technology) to enough device manufacturers so that it becomes as ubiquitous as a CD player," said David Reinsel, senior research analyst for storage technology at International Data Corp. Reinsel figures that to be widely adopted, DataPlay has to offer its disk reading and writing mechanisms for between 10 and 20 percent of the cost of the device--anywhere from $20 to 40 on a $200 MP3 player, for instance.

    Iomega's Clik drive, for instance, hasn't marshalled a critical mass of manufacturers, despite the fact that it too is a low-cost storage media aimed at the portable device market. The main win so far for the Clik technology, which can store 40 megabytes of data on a $9 disc, is that it is built into a digital camera from Agfa. A stand-alone version of the Clik drive is also bundled with Compaq's Windows CE handheld.

    How DataPlay stacks up
    A look at DataPlay compared with established players in the portable storage market.
    Company
    /product
    Storage capacity Cost Cost per MB
    DataPlay disk 500MB $5-10 $.02*
    Iomega Clik 40MB $9 $.23
    Sony Memory Stick 64MB $160 $2.50
    Various: flash memory 64MB approx. $150 $2.34
    *Expected price for media when available in 2001
    Source: CNET research

    "We think the story is so compelling and that our technology brings so much functionality to a portable appliance, that we think we're going to have pretty good success," said DataPlay president and CEO Steve Volk. Panasonic, Samsung and Toshiba have already publicly indicated interest in the company's technology, and Volk expects to be able to get major consumer electronics manufacturers to both license and build the drives into new devices within the next quarter.

    Storage technology is becoming a tough sell in some markets. The Internet itself has become a competitor, Scannell said, as more people chose to store photos online and benefit from pervasive use and universal access.

    Also, there are a variety of flash memory storage formats that have gained widespread use in digital music players and digital cameras. DataPlay is making a run at some significant competitors it may also need to court as customers, including Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba. The latter three are pushing two different takes on flash memory.

    Sony is already building in receptacles for its Memory Stick technology in everything from video cameras to portable PCs to digital music players. The purple Memory Stick, about the size and shape of a piece of chewing gum, is also being licensed for use by other companies for storing images and music. The Memory Stick can hold about 2 hours of music, according to Sony.

    IBM's strategy has been to take a computer's hard disk drive and shrink it--a lot. The company is selling a hard disk drive weighing less than 20 grams that can store either 170MB or 340MB of data. The devices sell for $349 and $455, respectively.

    Volk counters that the alternative technologies are expensive, none of the various flash memory formats are compatible, and all are inadequate for archiving material for long periods of time.

    DataPlay has its backers, who see the firm tapping into the growing trend toward information appliances. IDC predicts that Internet appliances, including TV set-top boxes, smart cell phones, handheld computers and gaming consoles, will grow from 11 million units shipped in 1999 to 89 million units in 2004.

    DataPlay has closed two rounds of venture financing for a total of $14 million since May 1999. A corporate round of $30 million to $50 million is expected to close in the second quarter of 2000.