Lauren Goode

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Eye-Fi Eyes a Fight Over Wireless SD Cards

Would new standards for wireless SD cards create more options for camera users — or more confusion?

In case you missed it, last week a battle started brewing between Eye-Fi, maker of wireless memory cards, and the SD Association, which represents more than a thousand companies that set industry standards and promote SD (Secure Digital) standards acceptance.

The argument stemmed from this: At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, the SD Association announced plans for a new Wireless LAN SD standard, formally named the iSDIO specification, for full-sized and micro SD/SDHC/SDXC cards. The SD Association said this will enable consumers to send pictures, videos and other content more easily from existing digital cameras to online cloud services and other SD devices in home networks.

Eye-Fi, which has been baking wireless technology into SD memory cards for several years — many consumers are familiar with the Eye-Fi cards, which bring Wi-Fi capabilities to cameras — says that this new set of standards violates the company’s intellectual property.

While both parties have declined to provide details as to which technical specifications are in question, Eye-Fi CEO Yuval Koren has put up a blog post staking Eye-Fi’s claim in the matter.

Eye-Fi is also miffed that the SD Association went ahead and put out a public statement on the new set of specifications. Eye-Fi says the statement suggests the new standards have already been adopted, when, in fact, they were submitted for approval on Nov. 28, 2011, and the 60-day IP review process is still underway. Eye-Fi told AllThingsD that normally there’s no public disclosure during this stage, because it’s not yet a ratified standard.

The SD Association, meanwhile, told AllThingsD that it routinely announces new standards during IP review, and didn’t change its practices for this announcement.

The SD Association IP review period is set to close in two days.

So, with that out of the way: How might all of this impact consumers?

To start: It’s generally agreed upon that more options for consumers are a good thing. The SD Association is presenting more options, and it says it’s doing so to respond to market demand, as wireless accessibility becomes more important.

But Eye-Fi argues that, in this case, more options will create more fragmentation.

While the actual documents that detail the new iSDIO standard haven’t been made public yet, the SD Association has confirmed that the proposed specifications would set standards for cards that fall under two types of devices: Type W and Type D. “W” stands for Web, and that kind of SD card would support peer-to-peer wireless functions. The home network interface would be designated by a “D” symbol, and would support home network communication functions. A wireless LAN SD memory card could provide both of the wireless types, and would carry both symbols.

Eye-Fi’s Koren told us that in Eye-Fi’s view, the SD Association has the potential to confuse and set back the camera industry just as the industry moves forward with sharing. “In the name of standardization, what seems to be happening is more in the way of fragmentation more than anything else,” Koren said. He also questioned whether compatibility issues could arise as a result of the two different device types.

Kevin Schader, the SD Association’s director of communications, issued a statement, saying, “Products made using SD standards will work together, as they have for the past 12 years.”

It’s important to keep in mind that this flap is coming at a time when consumer adoption of smartphones is surging, and many consumers are using their smartphones for photo-taking — and for immediate sharing. Meanwhile, more consumer electronics makers are introducing cameras that have a variety of Wi-Fi capabilities, cloud services and apps for sharing built directly into the cameras — eliminating the need for additional, external Wi-Fi cards.

Eye-Fi already works with 10 top camera manufacturers and dozens of photo sites; it also licenses its technology to SanDisk, the world’s largest provider of flash memory. Koren points to Kodak’s new wireless camera, announced at CES, as an example of a camera maker that’s introducing more wireless sharing capabilities while still relying on Eye-Fi cards.

In some ways, Koren said, Eye-Fi’s platform has been similar to smartphones in that it is driven by operating systems, and that makes Eye-Fi technology more adaptable to changes than Wi-Fi technology that is built into cameras. As Wi-Fi standards advance and change, Koren argued, it’s easier for consumers to put in a new card — the way they might update a phone’s operating system — than it is to invest in entirely new hardware, or in this case, a new camera.

So what’s the next step? The SD Association’s IP review process is set to wrap up on Jan. 27 — this Friday. Either the SD Association will vote to adopt the new iSDIO standards, or it will narrow the scope of the specifications or rewrite them in some way.

Eye-Fi, which is a member of the SD Association, says it hopes the association comes to the right decision. Which, in Eye-Fi’s eyes, would mean no new set of iSDIO standards — and less of a chance for competition that could possibly encroach on Eye-Fi’s intellectual property.

“I think for the SD Association to proceed with this, whether implicitly or explicitly, their members or anyone adopting the specifications would be made aware of the fact that there are some essential IP claims wrapped up in that standard,” Koren said. “And they’d be operating at their own risk.”

(Photo courtesy of bfishadow/Flickr)


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik