FujiFilm, Olympus propose new memory card

Two of the companies behind the SmartMedia card format, Fuji Photo Film Co. Ltd. and Olympus Optical Co. Ltd., have announced plans to move away from that card, choosing to develop a new format of their own. The move means that the pair will not line up behind an emerging format from SmartMedia co-developer Toshiba Corp. called Secure Digital (SD).

The announcement of another memory card format is likely to bring moans from users of digital still cameras and other portable digital equipment, who already have to deal with six formats, the latest being Sony Corp.'s MemoryStick Duo launched earlier this month.

The two chose to develop the new format, named XD (Extreme Digital) Picture Card, for two main reasons, said Yoshiaki Yamada, a spokesman for Olympus. The new card will be physically smaller, allowing manufacturers to design smaller digital cameras than are available today, he said, and will also help satisfy consumer demands for higher capacity memory cards.

In a shoulder-to-shoulder comparison with its competition, the XD Picture Card comes closest to the MemoryStick Duo in terms of size. The Sony card, which is just over half the size of the original MemoryStick, is about half a centimeter longer than the new XD format and otherwise has similar dimensions, which means users will likely see little difference between them.

In terms of capacity, it is too early to tell how the XD Picture Card measures up because commercial products are not expected to be available until the third quarter of this year. Olympus said it plans to launch the format with 16M-byte, 32M-byte, 64M-byte and 128M-byte cards, and follow with a 256M-byte card in December. The only other capacity firmly on the roadmap is a 512M-byte card due next year, although Yamada said the card specification scales up to 8G bytes.

Those plans mean the card will be playing catch-up to CompactFlash, which is available in capacities of up to 1G byte, and SD, which is available with up to 512M-byte capacity. Most other memory card formats are presently stuck at around the 128M byte mark.

The cards will be officially launched alongside new digital still cameras from Fuji Photo and Olympus Optical that are due in the coming months, the companies said. In addition to the cards, the two plan to put on sale PC Card and Compact Flash adapters that will allow XD Picture Cards to be used in devices supporting those formats.

The leading positions held by the two companies in the digital still camera market might be enough to drive the card's success, despite fierce competition, said Michito Kimura, an analyst at IDC Japan Ltd.

"The success of memory cards is driven by the digital still camera market so (XD) has room to grow," he said. "Toshiba and Panasonic (Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd.) are pushing SD cards but it has not been as successful as they expected. Last year Sony's MemoryStick had very good growth, and the reason is very simple: Sony's digital camera had very good sales. Toshiba and Panasonic are not in a good position in the digital still camera market."

"This combination of Fuji and Olympus, with top market shares, means ... (that) in the next few years the market for this card is likely to be big," he said. However, the analyst added, as third generation (3G) cellular services become popular and manufacturers build memory card slots into 3G handsets, those handsets are likely to start taking over as the driving force in the memory card market.

In choosing the XD Picture Card, the two companies are not totally moving away from Toshiba, which together with Sega Corp. and Tokyo Electron Ltd. formed the five-member consortium that first launched and promoted SmartMedia (then called Solid State Floppy Disc Card, or SSFDC). Toshiba will manufacture the XD Picture Card, but would not comment on whether it was disappointed that the two had not chosen SD for their next generation product.

"As long as they are selling some type of flash memory card, we can do business with them," said Kenichi Sugiyama, a Toshiba spokesman, noting that the company is still making money by supplying flash memory chips for XD Picture Card.

The announcement does, however, mean another nail in the coffin of SmartMedia, which became the first mass-market memory card format when it debuted in 1995, shortly before the CompactFlash format was launched. Since Toshiba stopped using the format in favor of SD, FujiFilm and Olympus have been two of the largest manufacturers of products based on the card.

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