CTIA: SanDisk puts DRM on flash cards

SanDisk Corp. on Tuesday took a step it hopes will transform the mobile media business, unveiling a storage technology called TrustedFlash that integrates digital rights management (DRM) into a flash memory card.

The addition of DRM will motivate providers of music, games, movies and other content to sell those products for mobile phones, either in the form of cards sold at retail stores or as downloadable content that can be transferred to a TrustedFlash card, said Eli Harari, president and chief executive officer of SanDisk.

Currently, most content for mobile devices is locked to a particular device, partly because of concerns about piracy.

TrustedFlash “will enable a whole new world of opportunities in the mobile entertainment market by providing the flexibility that consumers are demanding … while still meeting the security requirements that content providers need to have,” Harari said.

TrustedFlash will be rolled out in the fourth quarter of this year, Harari said. It is available now to original equipment manufacturers in miniSD, microSD and SD card formats, according to SanDisk.

At a news conference Tuesday at the CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment show in San Francisco, SanDisk, EMI Group PLC and Virgin Records America Inc. announced that a version of the Rolling Stones’ album “A Bigger Bang” on a TrustedFlash microSD or miniSD card is set to go on sale in select retail stores in November for US$39.99. It will include band images and links to other Rolling Stones albums that the consumer could buy, Harari said.

SanDisk also showed off a 4G-byte embedded flash memory component with the TrustedFlash technology, to be integrated into mobile phones, music players, personal media players and GPS (Global Positioning System) devices. It takes up less than 4 percent of the space that a microdrive would take up, Harari said.

Consumers will be able to move content on TrustedFlash cards from one mobile device to another because the DRM is built in to the card, Harari said. Depending on the DRM settings defined by the content provider, consumers also will be able to copy the content to a PC hard drive or other storage as backup a certain number of times, the company said.

The format is independent of particular DRM schemes, and the providers of existing DRM technologies, such as Apple Computer Inc., Microsoft Corp. and the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), have been invited to integrate their formats into the TrustedFlash format, Harari said.

SanDisk announced that Yahoo Inc. will bundle its Yahoo Music Engine with TrustedFlash cards, allowing users to directly subscribe to the Yahoo Music Unlimited service, listen to music on their phones and play music from the cards on Windows XP and Windows 2000 PCs. In addition, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. will equip several handsets with SD card slots to use TrustedFlash, the companies announced.

TrustedFlash cards can encrypt and decrypt multimedia files without sacrificing playback speed, according to SanDisk. Along with DRM, the cards include components for managing subscriptions, conditional access features such as renting content for a limited time, and commerce functions such as payment. The cards can be partitioned into storage for prepackaged content, downloaded content bought from a service provider, and the user’s own content from a PC, the company said.

The TrustedFlash technology currently belongs to SanDisk, Harari said. It could be applied to any form factor, not just flash memory cards, he added.

PacketVideo Corp., a multimedia software company in San Diego, is developing playback software to include on TrustedFlash cards, according to Bridget Cavanaugh, a PacketVideo representative at the press conference. Currently, multimedia content on TrustedFlash cards can only be played on phones with the proper playback capabilities, but PacketVideo is working on software that could be integrated into the cards and bring those capabilities to any phone, she said.

TrustedFlash has the potential to dramatically change the market for mobile multimedia content, but a number of pieces would have to fall into place first, said Avi Greengart, a mobile device analyst at Current Analysis Inc.

More handset makers will have to embrace the technology before it becomes attractive for content providers to sell music and video on the cards, and preloaded cards will have to become a high-volume business to bring down the high starting price, he said.

“At $40, it’s going to be a really tough sell,” Greengart said.

Meanwhile, mobile operators may resist adopting phones with TrustedFlash slots because they don’t want subscribers to be able to buy music or other content from retail stores instead of their own multimedia services, he said.

“For this to succeed, it requires the entire mobile device and content ecosystem to change,” Greengart said.

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