Is Memory Stick the future or just an expensive mistake?

Will Sony's gamble on a new format for interchangeable mobile memory pay off?

Approximately two inches tall and about as wide and thick as a lolly stick, Memory Sticks come in 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64MB configurations. They are small, light and easily transported, making them an ideal medium for people on the go.

They are also extremely versatile. Sony has built Memory Stick ports on everything from AIBO (the robot dog Sony introduced into the market earlier this year) to VAIO (its line of PC computers), enabling all of these products to share information.

"The Memory Stick has to be looked at as a mobile information medium that can be used for transferring digital data (text, graphics, audio) to disparate digital devices," says analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. What difference can a shared 64MB miniature storage medium make? The following is an abbreviated list of some of the products that feature Memory Stick ports.

VAIO computers (Models include all Slimtop desktop computers and the Z505 SuperSlim Pro line of laptops. All other PCs will be able to use Memory Sticks with an adapter): Because Memory Sticks are so small, you can be plugged directly into Sony's thinnest notebook computers.

Memory Stick Walkman: Sony has created a new Walkman with a Memory Stick port, essentially creating the first MP3-type music player with an interchangeable medium. This means you can plug a Memory Stick into a VAIO to download up to 80 minutes of standard-compression music files from the Internet, then plug the Memory Stick into your Walkman and listen.

While the Diamond Rio, Creative Labs Nomad and RCA Lyra all appeared on shelves before Memory Stick Walkman, they all have built-in storage. Sony's Walkman has the advantage that extra Memory Sticks can be carried around to expand your music selection.

Digital cameras: Sony is a leading manufacturers of digital cameras. Its latest release is the DSC-F505, which uses the same components as the celebrated Nikon CoolPix 950. Memory Stick will allow users to download pictures into VAIO computers without cables.

CyberFrame: Take some digital shots with a Memory Stick-compatible digital camera, save the shots on a Memory Stick, and place the Stick in a CyberFrame -- and you've got a desktop slide show. You may want to think before diving in on this one, however. CyberFrame PHD-A55 sells for about $900.

Digital phones: Sony is working on a digital telephone with a Memory Stick port that will enable users to broadcast information to people with similar telephones. This concept product, which does not have a release date, will enable users to insert a Memory Stick into a phone and send data, digital photographs or MP3 audio files.

Memory Stick is aiming at a new brand of convergence. Instead of bringing computers and other appliances into a single box, it merges their functions by giving them a shared form of communication. "It has the potential of becoming a serious information storage and transfer medium. But in order for this to become a standard, it will need wide industry adoption," Bajarin said. "While Sony can force this standard within their own products, it will take the acceptance of many major consumer electronics and PC players for it to reach this potential."

Some major companies, including stereo and electronics manufacturer Aiwa, electronics giants Pioneer Sanyo and Sharp, and computer maker Fujitsu have all agreed to support Memory Stick. There are Sony products that do not support it, however. The new PlayStation2, which will be released in Japan on 4 March, will not have a Memory Stick port. In fact, the road for Memory Stick does not look entirely smooth. At present, like all flash memory products, it is an extremely expensive medium. The 64MB sticks retail for $189, driving up the price of Memory Stick appliances as well. Memory Stick Walkman, which is packaged with a 64MB stick, debuted in Japan at 45,000 yen (£255). At that price, it costs nearly twice as much as Rio, Nomad or Lyra. "Yes, it is a bit expensive now, but if it gains wide adoption, the demand and competition will drive prices down eventually," Bajarin says.

At present, flash memory products may be too expensive for mainstream consumers. If the price comes down and manufacturers continue to support Memory Stick, Sony's gamble may well pay off. With its size and versatility, Memory Stick could indeed make it a new standard in electronics.