Originally created 06/27/99

Choice may hurt gadget users



NEW YORK -- Imagine sliding what looks like a stick of gum into your computer to download music off the Internet, then inserting it into a portable gizmo to play songs while jogging. Later, you use the tiny device to store photos from your digital camera, and drop it off at the store to develop.

Not so fast.

A new generation of "removable storage media" promises to open an era of convenience for consumers, offering harmonious communication among electronics products. But a heated battle over technical standards by manufacturers could push that day further into the future.

Sony, IBM, SanDisk and others have introduced competing high-capacity storage devices aimed at use with digital cameras, computers, music players and other electronics.

The new devices, though, add to an already confusing array of storage methods, including floppy disks, CD-ROMs and DVDs. Those that work with one machine may not work with another, potentially confusing electronics consumers.

"I'm not sure it will be resolved in the near future," said Jacques Kauffmann, technology advisor to the Photo Marketing Association International, a trade group of camera makers.

One popular medium for storing digital-camera images is called CompactFlash, developed by SanDisk Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif. The durable matchbook-size device uses "flash" memory chips, and holds anywhere from 16 to 80 images.

SanDisk is also talking to makers of portable music players about enabling their gadgets to use the device.

But prices of CompactFlash range from $70 to $300, nearly as much as an inexpensive digital camera.

Sony, for its part, is hawking its "Memory Stick," about the size of a stick of gum, and is using it as storage for its wide range of electronics products, including computers, cameras and gizmos for the home that look like ordinary photo frames but display digital still and video images.

But other manufacturers have yet to adopt their electronics products to the stick, which is a different shape than CompactFlash and doesn't fit CompactFlash sockets.

"Right now Memory Stick is really only relegated to Sony's own products," said Bob Amatruda, an analyst with International Data Corp.

IBM has another idea. It's pitching the MicroDrive hard disk drive, about the size of a large coin, as an advance that could greatly increase the storage power of digital cameras, hand-held computers and other small electronics devices.

Digital cameras equipped with IBM's 340-megabyte drive could store more than 300 photos -- about five times the capacity of cameras using "flash" memory chips.

Photographers could tote an entire vacation's images instead of downloading to a computer to free up more space. And users of portable music players could enjoy 6 hours of music downloaded off the Internet.

But the technology is expensive, costing $495 for a hard disk and an adapter that enables users to use the device with various electronics products. In addition, the device's moving parts are susceptible to damage during rough handling.

"I don't necessarily consider MicroDrive a viable option for cameras," said Kevin Kane, another analyst with International Data. "If you drop it, there's a good chance you're going to lose what's on there."

But IBM spokeswoman Susan McIntyre was optimistic, noting that dozens of makers of cameras, computers and portable music players have expressed interest in the product.

"We don't expect to replace the small, high-capacity storage devices. But we expect to play a major role," Ms. McIntyre said.

Another contender is Iomega Corp., which recently introduced a relatively inexpensive product, called "Clik."

It costs about $10 for a disk that stores up to 40 digital images. Drives that enable people to use the disks in cameras and computers range in price from $200 to $300.

The inexpensive disks could help popularize them as a method for on-the-go people to store images and data, observers said.

"Clearly all of those things have strengths and weaknesses and they are being used in different spots," Mr. Amatruda said. But in the end, he added, affordability could determine which catches on with most consumers.