IDC: 5 years before PCM enters mainstream

Phase change memory may offer better battery life and speed over flash memory, but high costs and scaling constraints are barriers to its viability as a mobile memory alternative, says analyst.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Phase change memory (PCM) technology might offer benefits over flash memory, but its high costs and scaling constraints mean the technology will have the opportunity to enter mainstream in mobile devices only after five years, an IDC analyst said.

Mario Morales, program vice president of IDC's semiconductor and electronics manufacturing services (EMS) group, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that compared to flash memory chips, which are able to scale rapidly, the production capability of PCM is not as advanced and thus will not be able to reap cost savings in the near future.

"The [flash] memory chip technology has been progressing from 8 gigabyte (GB) to 16GB, and this is expected to jump to 64GB in the second half of next year. I don't see PCM being able to scale at such speed right now," he said.

The analyst also noted that PCM is not a new technology, having been at the research and development (R&D) stage for the past 10 years. Samsung and Numonyx are key proponents of this technology, and the two companies had been sharing resources and technical know-how to push PCM into the market, he said.

Morales' observations could serve as a reality check for Samsung's plans to incorporate PCM chips into smartphones. In a recent BBC report, the Korean firm touched on its plans to bring PCM modules to market by the end of 2010. It claimed its chip is able to provide 20 percent more battery life on these mobile devices, as well as being a more durable alternative to flash memory.

According to the report, the PCM modules, a type of non-volatile computer memory, are built of a substance that records or erases data when it is heated and said to use significantly less power than existing equivalents.

Samsung's PCM play
When contacted, a Samsung spokesperson shed more light on the company's PCM plans, noting that with the initial production of the PCM module, it will be supporting customers in enabling the technology on their product platforms. Following this, Samsung plans to expand the availability of the next-generation PCM chip and promote its adoption into a "diverse lineup of applications".

While he declined to disclose which smartphone makers the company is working with, the spokesperson said its new multi-chip package with 512 megabit (Mb) PCM is backward-compatible with existing 40 nanometer (nm)-class NOR flash memory and "supports the code memory requirement" for most mobile handsets in the market today.

Furthermore, smartphones are just one of several devices that PCM is expected to flourish in, added the spokesperson.

"We expect PCM to be introduced initially as a direct replacement for NOR flash in mobile phones and other consumer electronics such as MP3 players, personal multimedia players and navigational services," he said. "As the technology evolves with advances in the characteristics, design technology and memory density, we see a diverse span of digital storage and consumer devices such as solid-state drives (SSDs) and high-definition TVs as potential applications where PCM could be adopted."

PCM a viable flash memory alternative?
The Samsung spokesperson also claimed that PCM is an able replacement for NOR flash memory, which is currently a key non-volatile memory module in mid- and low-end phones. As the technology evolves, the company expects that PCM will be increasingly adopted by applications that require high-performance, high-density and non-volatile memory, he added.

Micron Technologies, which just finalized its acquisition of PCM proponent Numonyx, took a different stance.

Eric Spanneut, director of mobile memory marketing at Micron, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the company is not affected by Samsung's new offering and still views NAND and NOR as the "predominant flash memory technologies" for the foreseeable future in mobile devices.

As for Micron's PCM portfolio, the executive pointed out that the chipmaker only finalized the Numonyx acquisition on May 7, and said the company will reveal more once plans are clearer.

IDC's Morales agreed with Spanneut, saying that Samsung's PCM strategy would have a better chance to succeed if it focuses on replacing pseudo static random access memory (PSRAM) instead.

According to him, PSRAM is used for buffering the information transmitted within mobile phones but PCM may be a better fit for such a function because cost is not the key priority. "In this space, the consideration is about power and performance, which the PCM is capable of delivering," said Morales.

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