Hot Flash: Flashtops Take On the Memory Market

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2006-08-24

Hot Flash: Flashtops Take On the Memory Market

SAN JOSE, Calif.-Flash memory continues to evolve quickly and grow more usable. The solid-state, rewritable silicon memory chips, which hold content without requiring power, are mostly known as gadgets the size of packs of gum that plug into computers USB ports to add extra storage. But thanks to recent fabrication breakthroughs, they have become much more versatile in a relatively short period of time.

Portable flash thumb drives that can hold up to 4GB of data are now readily available, and 8GB and 16GB versions aren't far behind, industry insiders said at the recent Flash Memory Summit at the Wyndham Hotel here.

Consumers also can expect to see the first 32GB, three-quarter-inch-thick flash-based laptops in the Western and European markets within a year. Samsung previewed its first flash-driven laptop at the CeBIT conference in Hanover, Germany, in March 2006, and launched the first batch of consumer units-dubbed "Origami"-in May in Japan and Korea.

These first "flashtops" feature a 32GB, 1.8-inch solid-state drive created by Samsung engineers. At the time, however, flash memory was selling for about $30 per gigabyte, so the 32-GB drive would have cost $960 just for the memory itself. The flashtops' initial retail price was about $3,700.

Prices have come down slightly since spring, and they are expected to continue to decline as fabrication factories come up with more efficient ways to manufacture the silicon wafers. But flashtops will remain relatively expensive for the next few years, industry insiders said.

These new laptops undoubtedly will appeal to only a certain slice of the overall market-those not planning to use their notebooks to store a lot of music, video, photos or other space-hogging content. People who will use flashtops will be those who simply want to utilize basic functions: to cruise the Internet, use e-mail, and write and store word processor or spreadsheet documents.

But the faster performance of flash-based laptops (at 53MB per second, NAND flash reads data about 300 percent faster and writes 150 percent faster than a conventional laptop hard drive), silent operation (no cooling fans needed), lightweight form factor and much-improved battery life are hard factors to ignore.

Intel also said it will begin adding flash chips to its standard laptop innards in 2007, mainly to speed up startup times, run BIOSes and lower power consumption by conserving hard drive operation.

Business wasn't flashy until recently

Flash memory was a successful but unspectacular sector of the IT market until about four years ago; now it is big business, pushed into the limelight by fast-selling MP3 players and rapidly improving fabrication methods. The NAND-a newer, higher-end version named after the mathematical term "not-AND"-flash markets total revenues in 2005 were $10.8 billion, up a whopping 63 percent from 2004.

Analytics firm iSuppli, in El Segundo, Calif. estimates that the market will grow to $16.8 billion in 2006 and $26.2 billion in 2009; Gartner, in Stamford, Conn., and IDC, in Framingham, Mass., are pretty much in agreement.

NAND flash bit shipments grew at a 179.6 percent compound annual rate in the six-year span from 2000 to 2005, or at least three times the 51.2 percent CAGR for DRAM (dynamic RAM) processors, Denali Software's Lane Mason has reported.

Flash chips are becoming a big side business for the greater Intel community; Intel's 2005 partnership with Micron Technology to produce NAND chips resulted in an immediate $500 million order from Apple Computer for its flash iPod Nanos.

"Flash memory is growing faster than any major market product in the history of semiconductors," said Jim Handy, director of non-volatile memory services at Semico, in Phoenix.

"In essence, NAND went from its first $100 million year [2000] to over $10 billion [in 2005] faster than any prior technology. DRAM took about 17 years to do that," Handy told eWEEK.

The demand for flash memory is growing "like crazy" and is poised for more growth as NAND chomps away at the markets for all other sorts of media, Handy said.

"Soon CD-R and CD-RW [disks] will go the way of the floppy, and camcorders will convert from disc or tape to NAND," Handy said. "SanDisk has trials going on to replace textbooks with NAND, so even paper is threatened."

However, it's still early in the game for NAND, Handy said.

"NAND revenues will outstrip DRAM revenues in 2008, and NAND already ships more gigabytes per month than DRAM," he said. "DVDs are next."

Joe Unsworth, who's been analyzing the NAND flash memory market for Gartner for eight years, offered a report at the Flash Memory Summit that indicated a 4 percent shortage of chips in Q4 2006 due to the overwhelming demand from device manufacturers.

"2007 really depends upon Apple," Unsworth said. "They've been talking about 10, 12, 16GB flash drives in their iPods. I think they have to come out with those."

What the hard drive people have to say

Flash is getting so big so fast, said former Apple and IBM executive Jay Elliot, founder and president of Migo Software, in Redwood City, Calif., that "the hard drive manufacturers ought to be getting worried."

Well, they might at some point, but that point isn't now.

One speaker at the summit said he'd done some research and figured that, as a result, a memory cache of 48GB should be "more than enough" capacity to store all a businessperson's important documents, plus e-mail and a modest amount of music and video. That kind of capacity is well within range of NAND flash.

At least one major disk drive company didn't think much of that assessment.

"Seagate said that the idea [that] 48GB of storage was enough for the average person's personal needs was news to them," Flash Memory Summit coordinator and producer Jay Kramer told eWEEK. "Of course, they believe there's an insatiable appetite for storage everywhere, and that may be true. That's certainly what they want to see."

Andrew Lim, director of market development at Seagate Technology-which happens to be the world's top producer of computer disk drives-told eWEEK that he believes the market is so wide open for IT-based applications that there will be plenty of room for both flash-based and spinning-disk storage products for years to come.

"It all depends on what you're using the capacity for," Lim said. "If you're using it for video games, high-definition movies, a 3-D geopositioning system in your car or lots of music, then you are definitely going to need a disk drive. Flash simply doesn't have the [capacity] for those kinds of uses."

Next Page: New uses for flash.

New Uses for Flash

The general public today is aware of flash in the aforementioned thumb or pen drives, iPod Nanos (and their competitors), and in SanDisk cards for digital cameras. But flash also is used in many less conspicuous places.

Microsoft's upcoming Vista operating system, for example, draws on two flash-driven features, ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive. Intel's 4GB Robson flash chip set will run the system's startup and BIOS, in order to speed up the startup and save wear and tear on the hard drive-not unlike an electric/internal combustion-powered hybrid automobile.

At the Flash Memory Summit, representatives from both Microsoft and Intel outlined the technological reason for the use of flash in forthcoming notebook and desktop systems as well as going into further detail about the requirements of the flash architectures.

Some of these flash memory architectures will be installed on the logic boards of Intel-based Macintosh and Linux systems in 2007, as well as on forthcoming "hybrid" hard drives that incorporate large flash caches alongside their rotating platters.

Migo OEMs its flash memory software to Kingston Technology, SanDisk and other media makers. Migo copies an entire desktop-including Outlook e-mail data, browser bookmarks and desktop settings-and then displays that desktop when you plug the flash unit into someone else's computer.

After you finish your work and unplug the Migo-powered flash unit, the host computer returns to normal-and retains no record whatsoever of the Migo takeover. The drives range in price from $29 to $99 and in capacity from 512MB to 4GB, Migo founder and president Elliot said.

"I can carry everything I need-all my business docs, my e-mail, all my Windows preferences-everything, in my little 64MB drive," Elliot said. "I just borrow someone's computer for a few minutes wherever I go-a friend's, business associate's, a copy center's-do what I need to do, then leave the computer completely untouched. Nothing [is] left on the computer whatsoever; it's like I wasn't even there."

There are other products similar to Migo on store shelves. MobiKey, made by Toronto-based Route1, is a computing device on a smart-card-enabled USB flash drive that connects a user to a remote desktop-one at home or in an office, for example-when the user plugs into another computer. It costs about $400.

U3, a Redwood City, Calif., company that specializes in augmenting what flash drives can do, lists a variety of USB plug-ins using its technology in different ways on its Web site.

U3's smart drive plugs into any Windows 2000 or XP machine and allows a user to work, play a game, sent instant messages or e-mail, edit photos and more, all without worrying about whether those applications are installed on the computer. Kingston 2GB U3 smart drives retail for $51.99.

The drive also works with iPods and memory cards, like the ones used in digital cameras. The user can back up the files on the flash drive or burn them to a CD. Portable flash drives do require the use of another computer to bring them to life, however.

Wheres flash headed next?

Industry experts have different takes on where flash might be going next, but they all marvel about where its been lately.

"I'm guilty of being really way off on my forecasts for the flash memory market a few years ago," Jim Cantore, president of JLC Associates, a consultancy in San Jose, Calif., said with a wry laugh. "But then again, I didn't know the flash iPod was going to hit the market, either."

Msystems, based in Kfar Saba, Israel, has developed a method for adding 4 bits of data per cell on nearly the same die size as 2 bits-effectively doubling the capacity of a NAND chip. Msystems CEO Dov Moran, whose company was acquired by SanDisk on July 31, told eWEEK that there are specific products in which flash is clearly capable of replacing HDD-in most instances.

"When requirements are for low capacity (as in application of industrial market, point-of-sale, medical instrumentation and any specific-function-dedicated computer), flash can replace HDD or, if not today, then at some time will replace HDD," Moran said. "In notebooks, we will see flash replacing HDD due to better reliability, power dissipation and performance. The proportion of notebooks with flash memory versus notebooks with HDD will grow from 0/100 [today] to 60/40 in several years."

Moran said he sees increasing use of flash in MP3 players, geopositioning systems, digital cameras and digital video cameras, and "most importantly, cellular phones, where flash will serve for all those usages and will become a major part of the phone," he said.

Migo's Elliot, who was one of Steve Jobs' right-hand men at Apple in the '80s and '90s, also said he believes that flash is still in its infancy and is only going to become more capacious and more pervasive.

"This really is an important new technology, for a lot of reasons," Elliot told eWEEK. "Power usage is a big factor. Flash uses only a fraction of the power a hard drive needs. Reliability is another factor: no moving parts! We'll continue to see improvement in capacities, too, as fabrication methods continue to improve."

Elliot predicted that in the future, people wont store all their data in one place, like a desktop or laptop computer; rather, he said, people will be storing information in different places, such as telephones, portable flash drives, watches or other handheld devices.

Users need to have their data spread all over the place, and they'll be able to get to it quickly when they need it, he said.

"Remember when a 1GB hard drive was finally on the market?" Elliot asked. "They were very expensive at first, but now look at how the prices have come down. Same thing will happen with flash; well see capacities continue to grow, and as a result, well see flash everywhere."

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