Phase change limited as flash replacement

Technology touted as flash memory substitute will ship by year-end, but is likely to replace only NOR flash due to cost, says analyst.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

Cost concerns over phase change memory (PCM), which is expected to ship commercially by year-end, could limit the technology as a replacement option only for NOR flash, according to an analyst.

Richard Gordon, Gartner's managing vice president for semiconductors, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that PCM is likely to replace NOR flash in mobile phones, but not NAND flash, due to cost issues.

Discussions about PCM, also referred to as phase change random access memory (PRAM) or ovionic unified memory, have circulated for decades but it was only in April 2008 that Numonyx CEO Brian Harrison announced the chipmaker will make the technology commercially available.

However, U.K.-based Gordon noted that the cost factor will prove to be a proverbial chicken-and-egg issue. "For prices to fall, volumes need to increase; but for volumes to increase, prices need to fall," the analyst said.

"[But], once customers commit to using the technology, the vendors will work hard to ramp production, reduce costs and hit [better] price points," he added, but did not indicate when the industry will reach that stage.

A Singapore-based spokesperson for Numonyx told ZDNet Asia the company remains on track to ship PCM chips before the end of the year. She added that the chipmaker earlier this year began shipping to customers samples of a PCM prototype, codenamed Alverstone. Some of this clientele are based in Asia, she said.

According to Gartner's Gordon, Numonyx's sampling customers for the 128Mb prototype include cellphone makers such as Nokia. When contacted, a Nokia spokesperson told ZDNet Asia the company does not comment on unannounced products or technology.

Samsung, said Gordon, is another company "active in sampling".

A Samsung spokeperson told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: "Samsung is presently developing 60 nanometer (nm)-class, 512Mb PRAM in response to the demand for NOR-based applications, such as mobile phones."

The company "will be initiating sample availability" this year, following which a timeframe for commercialization of the product will be determined, said the spokesperson. Samsung is also targeting to release a 45nm version in 2010, he said.

Gordon also highlighted Numonyx's recent announcement to replace its "velocity non-volatile RAM", currently based on flash technology, with PCM technology at the 45nm-process node by 2010.

With Numonyx and Samsung likely to be the early market entrants, the Gartner said both companies will be able to set pricing at a level that will yield good returns on investment for themselves, and that will also be acceptable to their customers.

Gordon explained: "They will also be more advanced in their technology development, and be able to ramp volume and drive down costs more quickly than other vendors that may be considering entering the market."

That, however, does not guarantee the investment will pay off, he said. "The caveat is that the market needs to reach, say, US$1 billion to make it viable for the major vendors to participate… If PCM does not develop into a mainstream memory market, then these vendors will pull out and will have to write off their investment."

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