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Digital film thickens

The variety of memory card standards hinders digital photography adoption.

I have always tried to keep things light in our editorial department, and it seems the atmosphere has gotten a lot lighter with the addition of new Associate Editor Elizabeth Millard. One of the things we do as we pass around pages is to type in mock headlines that are intended to make the downstream copy editor laugh. For our September issue, I typed the following headline in a review by Joe Farace of the Canon D60: “Make huge files fast!” The D60 is a 6.5-megapixel (MP) camera that got such a strong review that Joe–who reviews dozens of digicams per year–actually went out and bought one. But it does have the annoying habit of doing its job too well: It produces really big files.

Anyone who has dabbled in digital photography knows that one of the toughest challenges is storing all those huge files. When you buy a digital camera, you quickly find out that you need a bunch of other peripherals to manage your pictures: a CD burner, a card reader, an external hard drive, FireWire or USB hubs, etc. That job is complicated by the plethora of digital film standards: Smart Media, Compact Flash, Memory Stick, Click!, etc. Last week Olympus further complicated the picture with its announcement of the xD Picture Card–a postage-stamp sized chunk of flash memory the thickness of a human finger. According to Olympus, the xD will reach capacities of 1GB by 2004, eliminating the need for all those extras you bought to support Smart Media.

When I shared the release with Joe, he said one reason film SLRs are still so popular is their single film standard. You don’t have to worry about obsolescence with a standard that has been around for decades. In digital photography, they seem to release a new standard every year that is supposed to “revolutionize” picture storage. All the new releases only confuse the casual consumer, scaring them away from purchasing a system now. More and more users tell me they’re taking a wait-and-see attitude, not only because of the hype stream coming from Foveon, but also because of memory. The next big thing is magnetic RAM (MRAM), which will enable digital cameras to store images on camera and improve battery life by 100-fold when it’s ready. With all this new stuff on the horizon, the question is not, What camera should I buy? but, When should I buy one?

The ideal would be to settle on a cheap and useful standard and ensure ubiquitous adoption, kind of like what happened with the PC and the floppy disk. Sony tried digicams with floppies, but they failed for obvious reasons–one picture per disk is pathetic. I thought the floppy disk of digital photography would be Smart Media cards, which are one-eighth the size of floppies and hold 100 times as much data. I still think they would work just fine as the standard, if you have all the aforementioned goodies for quick access, imagebasing, and back-up. Their only drawback is cost, which is a little more than floppies cost in 1985 for one one-hundredth the capacity. The thinking is, if they became as ubiquitous as floppies, cost per megabyte would also be one one-hundredth that of the floppy. That scenario might still come to pass, especially if Olympus and its competitors continue to support it in the face of the stream new memory technologies.

Then again, if Foveon chips produce 10MB images that can be blown up to 18-by-24-inch prints without grain or pixelation, perhaps we will need gigabyte on-camera storage. But everyday snap shooters shouldn’t be confused. This is a memory technology for the high end, like Zip and Jaz drives were to the floppy disk. Go ahead and get your 4MP camera with Smart Media without fear of obsolescence. You’ll probably never need a camera that stores 1GB of data before you need to download it into your PC and back them up to various other storage media. Even though I take a light approach to the job, I don’t take the technology lightly. Digital photography is simply too useful to wait for.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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