Big in Japan

The face ― and size ― of memory is changing. As more companies jump on the SD bandwagon, CHARGED flies to Osaka, Japan, to meet the R&D gurus of Panasonic.

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  June 25, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|You brandish your digital camera and take some final snaps before heading for the airport. Hours later, working on a PDA some 30,000ft in the air, you refuse to let your holiday slip away so easily.

Punching up those pictures on your PDA instead brings a smile to your face — and don’t forget the music that you burned onto the same memory card. Nor the voice message from your girlfriend. Nor the video clip of your country’s captain scoring a World Cup wonder goal. All you need now is a Bloody Mary from the stewardess.

In truth, you are surrounded by a personal network. It is a network that consists of each and every gadget that has ever tempted you to open your wallet. The catch? Not all of these devices can talk to each other. Frankly, some are more hassle than they’re worth.

But an arsenal of gadgets easily linked together can complement a lifestyle — not interfere with it. This, at least, is the proposition put to the world by the SD Card Association. Eager to know more, CHARGED flew to Osaka, Japan, with an exclusive invitation to meet the R&D gurus of Panasonic, a subsidiary of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.

The SD (Secure Digital) Memory Card itself is a 3rd generation semiconductor (flash) memory device, not much bigger than a humble postage stamp. More specifically, the card stands 24mm by 32mm by 2.1mm.

The concept of a personal, digital network requires an effective bridge media, a physical link, to function; a means of data transfer that can slip easily from one product to another. As compact designs go, the SD card certainly fits that bill.

It is also small enough to fit into the new breed of pocket-sized devices — think fold-up phones and wearable gadgets — without detracting from their slimline form factors.

While the miniature blue square may strike you as unimposing, it represents digital storage as advanced as any technology out there. “A 512MB SD card can store up to 7,000 jpeg images, up to 3 hours of MPEG4 video and up to 11 hours of digital music,” Mr. Mike Nagao, general manager, SD Business Development Group, MEI, told CHARGED.

“Expect to see no less than 1 Gigabyte by the end of this year and, I believe, 4 Gigabytes by 2004.”

Aside from sheer size, SD Memory Cards are non-volatile, which means they do not require any power to retain data stored upon them. They are also solid-state devices: with no moving parts to skip or break down, you can enjoy audio on the move, whether sitting on a bus or pounding the treadmill.

||**||SD vs Memory Stick|~||~||~|The scope for SD storage is boundless, including all types of digital files like music, photographs, news, movies — “even cooking instructions for your microwave,” reads the Panasonic script. Being digital, of course, downloaded files can be organised on any PC before you transfer them to your SD Memory Card.

In terms of transfer rates, Panasonic claims a typical 2MB/sec, adequate for most procedures. Cards with greater capacities (256MB) bump this rate up to 10MB/sec, while plans for a 1 Gigabyte card late this year should deliver a still more impressive 20MB/sec.

Of course, the SD Memory Card is not the only solution to the problem of portable storage. Multimedia cards and Compact Flash technologies have been on the market for some time. In addition, the SD Card Association faces stiff opposition from Sony in the form of the MemoryStick.

Sony has built Memory Stick ports into many of its own devices, including AIBO, its rather unique robot dog, and the popular VAIO notebook range. The total number of Memory Stick enabled products is by no means small.

However, whilst the price differential between SD card and MemoryStick is negligible, Panasonic argues that the proprietary status of the Memory Stick may limit its growth.

“In our experience, Sony wishes to keep a tight grip on its proprietary technology,” said Mike Nagao. “Panasonic believes instead that the openness of the SD platform will continue to attract industry partners and like-minded developers. This storage medium offers the consumer the greatest choice of compatible devices — and manufacturers.”

So, you’ll experience no problems with the Memory Stick if you own a Sony Clié (PDA), Sony Cybershot (digital camera) and Sony Network Walkman (MP3 player). But what if your taste extends to an eclectic mix of gadgets? A PDA from Palm? A digital camera from JVC? And a MP3 player from Panasonic?

Against a backdrop of different digital products, the call has gone out not just for secure storage but also flexible I/O expansion.

Enter the SD Card Association. Originally created by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co, SanDisk Corporation and Toshiba, this trio acknowledges that strength lies in a broad range of affiliates.

Sure enough, as of May 31st 2002, 458 members have signed up to the SD movement, including such industry heavyweights as Microsoft, Sharp, Palm, HP, LG, Samsung, Kodak and Canon. The list certainly spans many diverse fields, featuring players from fields like consumer electronics, personal computers, telecommunications, photography and motoring.

||**||eWear on sale|~||~||~|From all the proponents of SD technology, however, Matsushita (read Panasonic) is largely responsible for the Memory Card’s direction. A founding member of the SDA, its current vision for this high-capacity, high-speed storage medium lies in a range of products dubbed ewear.

Whilst SD cards will happily transfer digital content from fixed points like desktop PCs and kiosk terminals, they’re better appreciated by users on the move. Ewear products built around the SD card are similarly portable.

Consider the SV-SD75, a compact MP3 player in the guise of a wristwatch, complete with strap. USB connectivity gives you another option in the transfer stakes, and AAC (Advanced Audio Compression) coding ensures plausible audio quality, with skip-free playback thanks to a lack of moving parts.

In a final stylish twist, the large LCD display makes use of silver characters on a black background. The end result is far from a classic Rolex, but straddles the kitsch and the cutting-edge nicely.

Should a MP3 strapped to your wrist fail to be quite convenient enough — you’ll need headphones after all — then the SV-SD05 might take your fancy instead. Headphones yes, but wires no. Which is to say that the device is an all-in-one construction, the audio player being built into the headphones themselves.

As with its wristwatch equivalent, the SV-SD05 deploys AAC coding (Advanced Audio Compression), USB connectivity and plays MP3 without transcoding. Simply pop in an SD card and let your boots do the walking.

Both currently available in the Middle East, the SV-SD05 and SV-SD75 are soon to be joined by yet more pieces of SD-compatible kit. First up is the SV-SD80, which should be on the shelves at $245 by the time you read this. A super-compact audio player, the SV-SD80 is a mouthwatering gem, miniscule yet still managing a battery life of close to fifty hours.

Its sister device, the SV-SR100, is a CD/MP3 player, supporting the MP3, AAC and WMA digital audio standards. A removable SD card is present, naturally. Better yet, you can burn your CDs directly onto the awaiting SD card, bypassing those bothersome stages of encryption and transcoding. All this for just $400. And now the bad news: the SV-SR100 won’t be introduced for another two months.

The SD family is a broad one, including voice recorders (such as Panasonic’s RR-XR320) and cameras (Lumix LC5, for example). But it seems that audio, music, is driving the phenomenon like no other.

All of which raises that most thorny of issues: copyright legislation. “The rise in digital content, such as high-fidelity music, has encouraged people to share and distribute material. We have used our expertise in digital compression to create a storage medium for the 21st century: the SD Memory Card,” explained Mr. Mike Nagao, general manager, SD Business Development Group, MEI.

“And yes, to safeguard the supply of this digital content, issues of copyright protection have to be addressed.”

Hence the name ‘SD’ in SD Memory Card, which means ‘Secure Digital.’ In fact, the security built into the SD card complies with SDMI (the now beleaguered Secure Digital Music Initiative).

It also adheres to specifications set down by CPRM (Content Protection for Recordable Media), an encryption standard jointly developed by 4C Entity, LLC, a licensing organisation comprising IBM, Intel, Matsushita and Toshiba.

||**||SDMI: down and out? |~||~||~|Under the SDMI environment, a piece of copyright protected music on a hard disk should theoretically be checked out only three times to a SD card. Once checked in from SD to hard disk, it can be checked out again. However, music can only be checked in to the PC (hard disk) from which it was originally checked out. In this way, music cannot be transferred to another PC. This limitation, whether or not the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) approves, has frustrated some users.

Just how copyright laws can be enforced in a manner suitable to all remains unclear — perhaps ultimately impossible. Whilst, at the time of press, even the mighty website has ceased to allow users to openly trade illegal audio files, the pro-unrestricted access lobby is not without hope.

Four years ago, the record industry with support from technology companies founded the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) to combat piracy over the Net. Unable to keep abreast of developments in digital technology, however, it has floundered, failing to unite the wills of competitive record labels and companies keen to exploit the potentials of digital distribution.

In the aftermath, devices like the SV-SD80 are complying, at least to some extent, with the guidelines set out by SDMI. Indeed, initial reviews have applauded its effort to make the creation process transparent and painless. The user experience is no different to transferring files as per your average non-SDMI-compliant player.

Looking to the future, applications for digital content storage are set to increase exponentially. The law will adapt accordingly. If the successful SD Memory Card is to continue its meteoric growth then it must soon field a myriad of content types, from audio and images to speech and video.

Insiders at the SDA are assessing these options even at the time of press; colour coded symbols marking a product’s compatibility with the SD format seem likely, as does a market in music and ebooks.

Memory Stick: you have been warned.

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