The New Kodak Ain't Kodak

Earlier this week I took a peek at some of nifty new gadgets debuted by Lexar (Nasdaq: LEXR  ) at the world's biggest photogeek convention, Photokina. I didn't have the kindest words for the firm itself, which led to several pitiful emails from Lexar fans. Perhaps they'll be assuaged -- a teensy bit -- by what's coming up below.

A bit later this week, it was flash leader SanDisk's (Nasdaq: SNDK  ) turn in the spotlight. The firm rolled out a few new memory cards, upping the ante for the pro market with what is claimed to be the fastest flash memory in the world.

But the company also showed off a device that had me shaking my head in disbelief. The SanDisk Photo Album is a little box with a remote control. It swallows any of several different flash memory chips and plays pictures, movies, and music files directly on the user's TV.

Let me be clear, and by clear I mean kind of snotty: I wouldn't buy one of these things in a million years. My Canon (NYSE: CAJ  ) digital snapshot camera already hooks directly to a TV, not that I'm interested in doing that. I don't know anyone who would want one of these.

I don't bring this up just to throw the Lexar fans a bone, though they sure seem to crave one. I bring it up to point to the important difference in SanDisk's flash memory strategy, and one that, I think, helps illustrate the difference between a good risky investment (SanDisk) and a scary risky one (Lexar): audience.

SanDisk's business is focused more specifically on expanding a base of worldwide consumers. The firm is taking pains to remove the computer from the digital photo process. I'm not so sure the TV player is the direction to go, but the emphasis on computerless or computer-phobic consumers is brilliant.

Let's face it, downloading pictures to a computer and popping out good inkjet prints is too big a hassle for most people. Furthermore, everything from Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) and Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) cell phones to Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) PDAs, MP3 players, and -- I think -- melon ballers can be had with integrated digital cameras these days. Five years from now, who knows if the people using these gizmos will even have a computer, or want to bother with it.

If they don't, they will be served by another of SanDisk's forward-looking initiatives: single-use shoot 'n' store flash cards. The idea is to free digital shutterbugs from having to download images and burn them to CD by offering $10 cards that can be used once, labeled, then popped into a shoebox forever.

By bringing cheaper -- nearly disposable -- digital media to the consumer, SanDisk is closer to becoming this century's Kodak than Eastman Kodak (NYSE: EK  ) itself, or its flash partner, Lexar. Remember, Kodak's long-lost fortunes didn't depend on selling high-end gear to a few snooty film buffs. It came by selling billions of units of film, cheap cameras, slide viewers, etc. to just about everyone else.

Of course, this is a risky business, but SanDisk has proven it can keep margins high despite the rapidly falling prices that come with the territory. If you're looking for a leader, this is it.

Interested in other risky fast growers? Check out David Gardner's latest, ultimate growth newsletter,Rule Breakers.

Seth Jayson is a real live photogeek whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The New York Times, among other publications. At the time of this publication, he was long SanDisk and Nokia, but had no position in any other firm mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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