Taiwan tips memory card format

Taipei - A technology consortium in Taiwan is putting the finishing touches on a memory card format that it says is twice as speedy as, yet cheaper than, USB 2.0. The Mmicro-Card is compatible with the popular Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard formats already in the market, the group said.

In a related development, a member of the consortium will take the wraps off a flash memory architecture in March at the high-profile IT industry gathering known as CeBit, in Hannover, Germany. Although few details are available, backers claim the memory architecture will enable cards that are 66 percent smaller than the reduced-size MMC or miniSD cards now coming into the market (see story, below).

Both efforts are a move in the right direction for Taiwan, even if they end up as less than successful. The island's companies are often chastised for not investing enough effort into developing homegrown intellectual property (IP) or industry standards that might give some companies here a head start on product introductions.

The Taiwanese Mmicro-Card card format is backed by a handful of local card makers, system designers and IC design houses, as well as a quasi-government re-search organization called the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), which has coordinated the effort.

The group has formed a Mmicro-Card Alliance to promote the card and to coordinate further technical development. Group membership is currently limited to those that researched the technology, but the alliance says it is preparing to open up to dozens of other local companies that have expressed interest in the format.

As engineers rushed to finish up the spec's documentation last week, the alliance met with representatives from the Multi-MediaCard Association, which oversees the open-standard MMC format and is interested in combining the two specs and talking about promotional cooperation. An MMC spokesman declined to comment on the new format. The alliance has not engaged with the SD Card Association, of which all but one Mmicro-Card company-Richip Inc.-are members (Power Digital Card Co. Ltd. and ITRI sit on the association's board of directors).

The Mmicro-Card Alliance has been working on the spec since May. Part of the motivation is to get out from underneath royalty payments of 6 percent for SD cards, of which Taiwan is the No. 2 assembler, said Liu Chih-yuan, who directed the project at ITRI and is chairman of the Mmicro-Card Alliance. "We are No. 2, but we cannot define our own spec, so we must pay a lot of royalties to the foreign companies," he said. "So these card vendors have come together and asked for ITRI's help to define a new spec and issue new patents in order to have our own spec that can become popular in the market."

Aside from the 16-bit bus' higher data rate, backers also point to the Mmicro-Card I/O as a major benefit, claiming that it's simpler to design with than that for SD cards.

"The SD I/O is not so easily used. It requires a lot of effort to develop, especially in terms of software," said Gordon Yu, president of C-One Technology, which sells flash-based cards under the brand name Pretec.

The simplicity derives from the use of USB protocols for the digital portion, he said. But the speed is twice that of USB 2.0, and the power consumption only one-third or one-fourth that of USB 2.0, Liu said. "That's our strength. It's a very low-power, high-speed USB-compatible interface. So we are complementary to the MMC."

ITRI has helped craft other standards in the past, including a high-definition optical-disk format known as Forward Versatile Disc, but those efforts have not caught on. Mmicro-Card could go the same way, Liu acknowledged, saying that technology is only one small part of winning market acceptance.

"We know that, so our main focus now is to work with the chip set and device vendors to design-in the spec. Otherwise, a lot of the card vendors will join but have no device support," he said. "And we must work with other organizations, such as MMCA, and with other companies in places like Japan and China."

Yu also said it could be difficult to market the spec, mostly because of the confusing plethora of standards already in the market. "People are fed up because there are so many standards," he said, "and every few years there is a new one."

He remained optimistic, however, that the alliance could persuade developers and manufacturers to sign on to the effort. Because the supply chain is working to upgrade support for SD and MMC cards to 4-bit and 8-bit buses, he thinks that many will decide to add 16-bit support as well.

"The major consideration is the need for high performance, the need for an infrastructure for the future and the need for simplifying the I/O card architecture," Yu said. "That's our strategy. We don't expect the Mmicro-Card will be popular in one or two years, but we are laying a foundation to say if you are looking for a change, then make the change for the next two years, but also think of changes for three to five years [down the line]."

The alliance plans on introducing the card in various stages this year, with demos early on and full-fledged functionality by year's end. Cards based on the format would be competitively priced with MMC-based cards, according to the alliance.

Cards vendors are likely to save money on the controller if they forgo including IP for the SD format. Liu estimated a 10 percent savings on a controller that sells for about $1 today. If device and card makers want to support all standards, including USB 2.0, the cost would be about 30 percent higher, Liu said, and a royalty would go to the SD patent holders.

The Mmicro-Card would be bundled with a hardwired adapter that would be cheaper than a card reader, at about 9 cents per piece, Liu said.

Story Copyright 2005 Storage Pipeline. All rights reserved.