Sony preparing for format war

The Memory Stick, Sony's Flash memory storage format, is starting to gather momentum as sales of the device reach new heights. But with the format soon to reach its third birthday, why the sudden interest in a limited technology?

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By  Will Milner Published  July 9, 2001

The Memory Stick, the proprietary flash memory device developed by Sony, is finally starting to make an impact on the global sales market. Although the device, which is no larger than a stick of chewing gum, is almost three years old, reception has, until recently, been less than Sony may have hoped. As a flash storage device users are able to use the Memory Stick to file and record digital data such as MP3 files or images from a digital camera. However, competing technologies have had dominated the sales of Flash memory devices.

A year ago, in the Spring of 2000, the CompactFlash format was dominant with a majority rule of 51% of the market. Behind this was the SmartMedia format which accounted for 41% of the market. The Memory Stick meanwhile controlled an insubstantial 7% of the market. A year later, in the Spring of 2001, Sony’s Memory Stick now commands a more resounding 25% of this fast growing market. With Compact Flash and Smart Media both dropping to 40 and 32% respectively it is evident that the Memory Stick is grabbing a larger share of the market.

There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, as itp.net reported earlier this year (http://www.itp.net/news/97272158497670.htm) the diversity of the Memory Stick, and the products that utilise it, is becoming greater. Originally used only in MP3 players and digital cameras it is now used in a wide variety of products. From strange developments such as AIBO (Sony,s famed robotic dog) and even a Memory Stick mouse, to devices such as the Clie handheld.

However, the most likely cause for Sony’s growing success is the loosening of the licensing agreement. The proprietary technology was developed exclusively by Sony and access for third party developers was limited. This meant that the device was only used with Sony products. Realising that a format’s success depends as much on the support as it does the specifications and performance standard of a product Sony has made the Memory Stick more accesible to third party developers. As part of the new deal licensees will have to pay a one-time licensing fee but no royalties thereafter. The deal is already starting to bear fruit with photography specialists Fujitsu and Lexar both committing themselves to produce Memory Stick products.

The total number of Memory Sticks currently shipped has reached the 10 million unit mark. With a total of 157 licensees currently contracted to Sony this nuber is sure to rise rapidly. Despite its current period of growth the success of the Memory Stick is by no means guaranteed. The recently released Secure Digital card, although still in its infancy, has a number of hardware advantages over other formats. In addition it is supported by many of the consumer electronic industries largest companies.

While consumers wait to see the eventual winner of the format war Sony continues in its attempt to improve the format. Although the microsized device is currently limited to just 128MB (for a price of around $220 - $250) a 256MB version will be available Q1 2002 and a 2GB version is due for release by 2003.

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