Salem’s Fire #41: The Shrinking Future


The shape of the future is becoming clearer. That shape is small and squarish.

Ok, ok, so it is rectangular. 15/16ths of an inch by 1 1/4 inches to be exact. Oh, yes, and its 1/16th of an inch thick. What future is this? The future of software distribution.

When Sony announced recently that the CLIE line of PDA was being discontinued in the United States, the effect was greater than ensuring that Palm would dominate the Palm OS side of the PDA picture for the foreseeable future. Sony?s decision also eliminated the memory stick as a candidate for handheld software distribution in the United States. The victor, as had been apparent even before Sony stepped out, is Secure Digital. SD, also known as MMC or SD/MMC, is the 1/16th of an inch future.

Who cares? I do, and any one who might possibly want to purchase PDA software in the next few years should. Remember way back when the VCR was spiffy new technology? There were two tape formats that dominated the market, VHS and Beta. Instead of the market being happily centered on one format, Beta and VHS went to war, and the result was a lot of unused Beta players, and piles of Beta tapes that are useless once the old Beta player breaks. The market battle between the formats was a waste of time, money, and did nothing but give geeks and engineers something to argue about over coffee.

A similar battle is underway right now in the burnable DVD world. There has been a battle of varying intensity over the past several months between DVD-R, DVD+R, and a whole alphabet soup of related formats. The result is it is entirely possible to burn a DVD on one computer and not have it be playable on another. A disc of home movies might be playable on Grandma?s DVD player, but not Great-uncle Freddie?s. Granted, most manufacturers are fed up with the fight between formats by now and are just supporting every last format they possibly can. That does not mean that the battle between + and – (sounds like a horrible math movie) will go away, or that the average consumer will no longer be affected. All it means is that in a free market, like the United States, format wars are a part of the landscape. Stupid and expensive though they may seem, they are here to stay.

And that is exactly what was shaping up in the handheld world. As I like to keep predicting, handheld gaming is in for a huge boom in the near future. One of the stumbling blocks to that boom was a question of distribution. What is the best way to get software, particularly the larger files that are needed for good looking games, out to the handheld gamer? Internet? Too slow on dial-up, and a lot of the gamers in the world are still stuck on dial-up. Loaded from a CD through a computer? Nice, but then the gamer needs a computer. PDAs are pretty much stand alone devices now. Just because a potential gamer own a Tungsten T3 does not mean the gamer owns a conventional computer as well. The best method is to introduce the software directly to the gaming machine. Removable memory allowed for that to happen. Problem: there were a couple of big players in the memory world. By early this year, that number had been whittled down to two: SD, as present in the Tapwave Zodiac and the new line of Palms, among others, and MemoryStick, as pushed by Sony into absolutely every product they could possibly stick a Memory Stick, including the CLIE line of handhelds. Except, the CLIE line of handhelds has bowed out of the United States for at least the next six months.

And just like that, the battle is over. Secure Digital and its tiny form factor carry the day, and will soon be carrying copies of popular ported games to a handheld device near you. Now that Palm is building pretty good screens and capable 3D engines into lower priced handhelds targeted to the average user, the stage is set for an enterprising and creative gaming house to push into the PDA market, and to push hard.

There is only tiny complication to software and hardware makers happily agreeing on SD as the format of choice. One very tiny complication. It is called XD. It is a lot like the tiny SD card, only smaller. XD is just now arriving on the scene in a big way. Will XD and SD get along happily? No one knows.

I would suspect, though, that SD slots will show up on the next round of Sony handheld devices to appear in the U.S. Somehow I doubt a company with as large a stake in the gaming and entertainment world as Sony will count on the PlayStation Portable to dominate the handheld gaming market alone. Sony will be back. Secure Digital, though, looks to be here to stay.


Disclaimer: Salem?s Fire was written by Luke Blaize during 2002-2004, and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.

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