SD Cards – the future of Physical Media?

There has been some mutterings going about, and I don’t mean the whole FTL thing either. No, these mutterings are about the future of physical media – many of course argue that the future is digital media, and that eventually we will abandon CDs and Cartridges and just download games, especially if they can sort out faster data unpacking via 4G or fiber-optics.

But there is another possibility – and one that strikes fear into the hearts of publishers for varying reasons. With Blu-ray technology so heavily tied to Sony in recent years (despite the fact Sony don’t own the format), there has been a question as to whether an alternative format can be found so as not to become too tainted by the idea of Sony (or the Blu-Ray Disc Association) bearing down upon them.

So imagine my surprise that one of the reactions to the FTL Data Transfer was a very short comment; “The CD Era will come to an end, but it will be replaced with SD Cards, not digital downloads.”

This does at first seem like a rather long stretch – for home consoles, cartridge-based gaming has been dead for a decade. The reasons for this were simply down to the expense of making those big, unwieldy cartridges – it kept game prices artificially high at the time, although many would argue that it is no different now with Blu-Ray and other CD-based formats.

It is also seen as decidedly retro. An anomaly of the past. Something we were supposed to have moved on from. The mental link is just there for us – and it would be very hard to shake off for many.

But for all the baggage that may be tied to the idea of going back to a cartridge-based format, there are logical reasons why it may even be a good thing – if not a great thing.

For a start, SD Cards as we all know are very competitively priced these days. Made in bulk, the costs that were associated with the old bigger carts would be tiny – likely no more expensive than making a Blu-Ray disc. When it comes to costings, there would probably be no notable disparity between the two.

They would also be more reliable – durable and no risk of scratches (something the 360 had an issue with some years ago). Then you come to the fact there would be noticably shorter loading times as a result of an SD-Card format, as much of the delay even now is largely down to reading the disc – as you can text for yourself by installing a game onto your PS3/360.

Another bonus is environmental – not so much in a recycling sense, but the packaging needed to house the card would be smaller than a 3DS case. By reducing the packaging costs, you would save money and create less waste for the environment. Hooray!

And finally is that consoles (and invariably PCs) would probably end up being smaller as a result too. The two largest (bulkiest) parts of a console would be the Disc Drive and the Hard Drive. By taking out the CD Drive, and using a smaller card reader format, you can reduce the size of consoles. People may be shocked to discover this in theory would likely end up being CHEAPER than a modern disc drive. And let us not forget the traditional hard drive is also slowly being usurped by Solid State Drives, which are comparitively smaller and also have no moving parts.

Of course, these are all assumptions and posturings for a future next-gen, and the truth is we simply don’t really know right now. But I would not be averse to the concept of leaving the CD era behind us. For those who may assume it as a return to the bad old days, an exercise in good marketing would be able to quickly allay fears and remind people this would be an SD-Card era, not really a Cartridge era, and that the costings are unlikely to stay that high for long – prices for a new generation of machine or media format are usually quite high (everybody wave to Blu-Ray again! Hi Blu-Ray!) but we see them come down in price a lot as they achieve more market penetration.

There is no real doubt that Microsoft and Nintendo would love to avoid Blu-Ray technology however. It would be a bit of a PR Nightmare for them – regardless of the fact it isn’t owned by Sony, it is so intrinsically tied to Sony through the PS3 and the format war they had with HD-DVD, that it would be like conceding defeat to their market rivals. So they may opt for their own disc-based formats (which the Wii U is likely to do initially), or it may be a very real situation that they could indeed look to SD Cards as a medium that already exists and is prime and ready to be taken that one step further.

I’m not entirely sure that will happen immediately – the rate of development is blisteringly fast but likely not fast enough to make it during this generation. But I think the pros do outweigh the cons. It will be interesting when we do get our first glimpse of next-gen consoles – they may initially choose to hedge their bets and go for both an SD Reader and a CD Drive, and let the market decide. One would hope this may happen, at least. Or we may even need to wait for another generational leap, when it is likely 64GB or even 128GB SD Cards, will be the norm and cheap enough to be the standard of media sharing.

It is a debate that would be great to have openly. Technology has moved on. And until fiber-optics and 4G signals are an industry standard for data transfer, physical media will still exist (and probably exist long after that).

But what that physical media should be – BR-D or the equivalent, or SD Card – is interesting. Personally, I think a future with no moving parts is likely to succeed, but it’s up to us – as consumers – to support this kind of future. Are we really ready to consign the CD, DVD and Blu-Ray to the scrapheap of media formats, like we did with LPs, cassettes and VHS/Betamax?

It’s got me thinking, at any rate.

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