Wireless Wi-Fi SD Memory Cards, if Dispute Can be Resolved

PHOTO: An Eye-Fi Wireless SD Card at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.Paul Sakuma/AP Photo
An Eye-Fi Wireless SD Card at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

The popular SD card -- a format of memory card used in digital cameras, smartphones and other devices -- may gain wireless capabilities if a legal dispute can be resolved.

Perhaps the most dramatic media format war that played out over the past decade was HD-DVD versus Blu-ray. But another major battle was for a removable flash memory card standard. In response to Memory Stick, which Sony launched in 1998, SanDisk, Toshiba, and Panasonic launched the Secure Digital (SD) card in 2000.

Since then, SD has become the dominant memory card format used in products such as digital cameras. It and its successor formats were responsible for 52 percent of memory card units sold in 2011, according to The NPD Group's Retail Tracking Service. SD has become so popular that in 2009 Apple finally added an SD card slot to its notebooks and these days even Sony not only supports the use of SD cards in many of its electronics products, but sells Sony-branded SD cards.

SD has gone through many changes over the years. Naturally, the capacity has continued to grow. The latest version -- SDXC -- can support up to two terabytes of data although there are no such cards on the market today. The cards have also gotten faster. Class 10 SD cards can transfer data at up to 10 megabytes per second, fast enough to store Blu-ray quality HD video captured from a camcorder.

And follow-ons to the SD card format have gotten smaller as well. A few years after the announcement of MiniSD, the SD association announced MicroSD, the tiny memory cards that are now used in many smartphones.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the way SD cards are used has changed as well. Originally, SD and its competitors were used as transitional storage, a floppy disk replacement that could be used to exchange data between devices. This certainly still holds true, particularly for digital cameras. However, most models of smartphones that use MicroSD cards have the slots under the battery cover where they are less convenient to swap in and out.

This makes it more difficult for a casual thief to steal a MicroSD card or for it to pop out if the phone is dropped. But it is also because consumers have turned to e-mail and cloud services such as Dropbox to exchange files. MicroSD has become more of a flexible way to expand a phone's internal memory.

At CES 2012, the SD Association announced what would be the biggest change to SD since its creation, the ability to create standard SD cards that include a Wi-Fi radio. This would allow just about any device that supports SD cards to communicate with other nearby devices wirelessly. A digital picture frame with such a card, for example, could receive photos from a digital camera with such a card, or virtually any smartphone, tablet, or notebook. It might also be a way to offer Internet access for televisions or car stereos that can't access such networks today.

But there's a wrinkle. Eye-Fi, a company that has been offering Wi-Fi-enabled SD cards for digital cameras and camcorders for many years, claims that the new standard infringes on its intellectual property and has been protesting. Meanwhile, Toshiba has announced that it would be creating Wi-Fi-enabled SD cards that, like the Association's proposed standard and unlike Eye-Fi's current implementation, would allow for two-way file transfers. Eye-Fi had not publicly responded to the Toshiba announcement.

If the SD Association can work out the disputed issues with Eye-Fi, then the promising new wireless SD card standard should become a reality. If not, Eye-Fi may remain the main game in town. Many top camera manufacturers have special features in some of their cameras to accommodate an Eye-Fi card, which remains a great option for wirelessly transferring photos from digital cameras, but has no capability to receive information from another source.

It would be great to see two-way wireless communication come to any standalone device that supports the popular card but not Wi-Fi.

Ross Rubin is executive director and principal analyst of The NPD Group's Connected Intelligence. He also writes for The NPD Group Blog. You can follow Ross on Twitter @rossrubin and NPD on Twitter @npdtech.