Sony Memory Stick
Sony goes its own way--again--but it just might work
Memory Stick
One of the things which frustrates me as a consumer (yet keeps me employed as a technology writer) is the staggering variety in data storage media. It used to be so simple: people used floppy disks. Period. When double-sided and high-density drives came along, you could use them to read and write your old disks, so upgrading was no big deal.

Then came 3½" floppies, and 44 MB SyQuest cartridges. Then optical disks, SyQuest cartridges in various shapes and sizes, Zip disks, Jaz cartridges, magneto-optical disks, PCMCIA/PC Card storage, CD-R and CD-RW, the various flavours of writable DVD, Clik! Disks, and SmartMedia.

Did I miss anything? Probably. There's been a lot of innovation over the last decade. Of everything I've mentioned, most are still in use today, with laptops and digital cameras driving some of the more interesting (and tiny) developments.

All of which brings me to Sony's new Memory Stick, a piece of plastic and metal about the size and shape (but not the price) of a stick of gum, which holds up to 16 MB (depending on the model). For those of us that came of digital age when $45 got you ten 180K 5¼" disks, the notion of spending the same money for 4 MB you can rest on your little finger reminds us of how far we've come.

The obvious application for the Memory Stick is digital photography, and I have in fact been using it with the Sony DSC-F55 digital camera. Granted, there's already similar technology in place for digital cameras, such as SmartMedia. By an astonishing coincidence, Memory Sticks and SmartMedia come in the same capacities (2, 4, 8, and 16 MB, with 32 MB around the corner) at the same prices. A Memory Stick, though half the length of a SmartMedia card, is twice as thick, so it doesn't feel as flimsy. Still, why did Sony go through the trouble of reinventing the wheel?

Simply, Sony has bigger plans for the Memory Stick. Rather than merely act as a digital camera memory buffer like SmartMedia, Sony seems to envision the Memory Stick as a means of interchanging data between disparate devices--the equivalent of a floppy disk.

Sony is pushing the Memory Stick for storage on gadgets ranging from the aforementioned DSC-F55 to Digital-8 Handycams to the new VAIO notebooks. If you've got a spare $3,000 lying around, you can even use it to store the personality of Aibo, your pet cyberdog.

Pretty versatile, huh? Not nearly enough, so far as I'm concerned. Take a look at those products the Memory Stick works with: not only are they all Sony, none come cheap: the DSC-F55 lists at $1,499, and it's the least expensive of the pack.

Next problem: it's too difficult to read a Memory Stick's contents on your computer. If you don't have a new VAIO notebook, then your best bet is their PCMCIA Memory Stick adapter. That's all well and good, but the majority of computers don't have PCMCIA slots.

Because of their similarities, the Memory Stick's main competitor is SmartMedia; I very much doubt the Memory Stick will make many inroads into the digital camera market immediately, since several digital camera manufacturers use SmartMedia. Memory Sticks are simply outnumbered. Free advice to Sony: your best bet is an end run. Release a Memory Stick floppy disk adapter (much like the one for SmartMedia) so more people without laptops can use them. Make a USB Memory Stick reader too, while you're at it. Then buddy up with 3Com to use the Memory Stick as a RAM expansion module and/or storage device for the Palm handhelds, and watch the crowds go wild.

But please, please, please look beyond yourselves if you want this thing to work. Corporate synergy is fine, but sometimes sharing helps you in the long run. You held on too tightly to a superior technology once before and it cost you... or is the pain of the Betamax not fresh enough in your minds?

Originally appeared in (June 24, 1999)