Laptop computers are likely to become smaller, lighter and easier to use thanks to an agreement between Japanese and U.S. companies on standards for credit card-size memory cards that replace floppy disks.
Some portable computers already use the plug-in cards to expand memory capacity. But the standards, to be announced Monday in the United States and Tuesday in Japan, will ensure that all the cards on the market are compatible.
Floppy disks are the most popular way of storing and exchanging programs and data for personal computers. But despite advances, disk drives are relatively bulky, heavy, susceptible to damage from dust and mechanical shock, and heavy consumers of battery power. All these are negative factors for portable computers.
In contrast, IC cards weigh only a few ounces and have no moving parts. They store programs or data on silicon chips. Some use a tiny battery to retain their memory, while others with new "flash" memory chips need no batteries.
IC cards are expected to expand uses for computers as well as be employed in other kinds of electronic equipment, such as digital cameras.
"In the future you may be able to stick an IC card in a vending machine and select what magazine you want," says Akihide Sei of the Japan Electronic Industry Development Assn.
"The vending machine will transfer that magazine into the IC card, and you can plug it back into your laptop computer and read the magazine on the screen while you're commuting to work," he said.
Memory-card developers, Sei said, were inspired by the game cartridges used in video game machines.
"Once you put the IC card into the computer, the program appears by itself on the screen, like a video game," he said.
This year, IC cards will be available with 4 megabytes of memory, "but in four years we expect to increase that to 40 megabytes," he says.
The standard was developed by the 200-member Japan Electronic Industry Development Assn., which includes most major Japanese computer companies, and the 70-member U.S. Personal Computer Memory Card International Assn., which includes International Business Machines Corp. and major software developers such as Microsoft Corp.
"The fact that both the United States and Japan agreed on the same standard is very important for the future compatibility of computers," said Shoji Hiroe, technology director of Toshiba Corp.'s personal computer division.
Development of the 170-page standard began six years ago in Japan and about two years ago in the United States after computer companies "decided it wasn't good to depend on a single maker to develop a system for everyone," Sei said.
Preliminary specifications announced last year for the 68-pin IC cards did not contain many of the software standards included in this year's agreement.
Also to be announced Monday are separate specifications for 88-pin dynamic random access memory cards that will be used only for memory applications. The special needs of DRAM chips require a different number of pins.
Products using the new cards are expected in the following months from a number of U.S. and Japanese companies, including Texas Instruments Inc., Intel Corp., Mitsubishi, Fujitsu Ltd., ITT-Canon and Microsoft.
However, Toshiba, a leader in laptops, says it will wait until more software is available on IC cards--even though one of its engineers headed the Japanese electronics group's IC card committee.