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NAND flash memory, which changed the IT world, reaches age 35

The solid-state storage media has had a far-reaching impact that has fundamentally reconfigured how we use tech on a daily basis.
Written by Chris Preimesberger, Contributor

NAND flash memory, the nonvolatile, solid-state storage media that has profoundly altered the tech industry over a generation of use, marks its 35th anniversary this year. It has long been relied upon as a strategic IT component that no one could have imagined back in its early days of the 1980s.

What do cassette tape decks of the 1980s, MP3 players of the 1990s, and today's smartphones have in common? None would exist as we know them today if it were not for NAND flash memory, the influence of which has quietly improved the quality of IT life for consumers for a lot of years. 

San Jose, Calif.-based Kioxia America, Inc., known as Toshiba Memory America until October 2019, today announced that it is celebrating the anniversary of the company's invention of NAND flash memory by Toshiba scientist Dr. Fujio Masuoka in 1980 with an online video campaign, special events, and other activities. 

Where the name 'flash' emanated

Kioxia contends that the name "flash" was suggested by Masuoka's colleague, Shoji Ariizumi because the erasure process of the memory contents reminded him of the flash of a camera. Toshiba commercialized NAND flash in 1987; since then, the solid-state storage media has long taken off down the runway and hasn't looked back.

Little do most people know that one of the first use cases for NAND flash was in cassette tape recorders and telephone answering machines of the 1980s and '90s. Most people were first introduced to the solid-state storage technology when they slipped little 8MB or 16MB storage cards into their cameras and phones or plugged a USB drive into a PC; those use cases are still deployed thousands of times per day. 

"The invention of NAND flash started a revolution that enabled the increasing digitization and understanding of the human experience," said longtime storage and NAND flash analyst Tom Coughlin of Coughlin Associates. 

"NAND flash touches almost every aspect of our lives, and with the constant innovations in NAND flash, there is an exciting future in the years ahead," said analyst Jeff Janukowicz of IDC. 

Also: Best external hard drives: Top SSDs and storage

"It's simply everywhere! Who could have imagined that this technology would have become so pervasive in only 35 years?" said Jim Handy of Objective Analysis.

Back in 1987, it would have been hard to imagine all of the ways that this then-new technology would impact the world. NAND flash memory has ushered in entire new technological eras, made devices much more mobile, and has replaced obsolete technologies and products that had been in use for years. Since entering the market 35 years ago, the yearly NAND flash market has grown to more than $70 billion (Forward Insights, 3Q 2021). 

The media itself has been improved tremendously

The quality of the media itself has improved tremendously. In terms of die density, flash memory has grown from 4MB to 1.33TB -- a 333,000x increase (Forward Insights, 2019). To put this exponential growth in perspective, in the 1990s, the largest available density flash memory available could hold 1/8 of a photo. Flash forward to 2022, where the largest available die density is a whopping 1.33TB -- and capable of storing 39,000 photos. 

Early critics of NAND flash storage -- those who favored mechanical disk drives, which are still used globally -- predicted the solid-state media would wear out over time and become ineffective. Well, NAND flash has, in fact, stood the test of time and didn't face that criticism any longer.

Some of the first applications that flash made possible all those years ago, including digital cameras, barcode scanners, and personal digital assistants (PDAs), have evolved along with the technology to the point where they are almost unrecognizable today. Additionally, new applications have been born, many of which would simply not exist were it not for the advances being made by Kioxia. These include smartphones, tablets and notebooks, automotive infotainment systems, gaming, wearables, and many more use cases. 

"Flash memory is a game-changer that continues to stand the test of time," Scott Nelson, Kioxia Senior Vice President and CMO, said in a media advisory. "Imagine what's to come: Will the vision of smart cities be realized? Will truly autonomous cars take us from place to place? Whatever the future holds, KIOXIA will continue to lead the way forward, investing in and evolving the technology that makes storage densities higher and costs lower. 

"The sky's the limit for flash memory, and the next wave of applications that will further enrich our lives is just around the corner. In some ways, we're just getting started." 

Differences between NAND and NOR flash

There are two types of flash storage for the record: NAND and NOR. The high-density NAND (which stands for "Not AND," a Boolean logic operation that is true if any single input is false) type must also be programmed and read in smaller blocks or pages. NOR allows a single byte to be written or read independently. NOR flash is preferred for flash devices used to store and run code, usually in small capacities.

Also, for the record, Kioxia isn't the only maker of NAND flash. Kioxia, Samsung (the world market leader), WDC, SK Hynix, Micron, and Intel are the large players, and a few others also manufacture it.

Kioxia's commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the invention of NAND flash will continue throughout 2022. The company has also created a dedicated 35th-anniversary website, where a series of videos ("A World Without Smart Devices," "A World Without Mobile Devices") that explore what life would be like without flash memory can be viewed, and industry insights, predictions, and opinions related to the importance of flash memory will be shared. 

For more information and to stay up to date on 35th-anniversary activities, please go here.

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