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Micron moves into camera chips

Seeing potential in multifunction devices where picture-taking is an add-on, the PC memory chip heavyweight starts making image sensors.

Micron Technology, a leading producer of PC memory chips, is expanding into image sensors for digital cameras and other devices.

The company announced Monday that it is shipping to manufacturers sample versions of its first imaging products: a standalone image sensor based on CMOS technology, and a "camera-on-a-chip" version that combines the image sensor with processing functions.

Image sensors are the heart of digital cameras, converting light into the pixel-by-pixel data that make up a digital image. Most mid- and high-end digital cameras use sensors based on rival CCD technology, which consume more power but capture more-detailed images. CMOS sensors are mostly confined to cameras costing less than $100 and to multifunction devices where picture-taking is an add-on.

It's the latter market where Micron sees the most potential, said Shawn Maloney, director of marketing for the company's Micron Imaging division. Micron formed the division last year from the acquisition of PhotoBit, a chip-design company specializing in CMOS imaging products.

Cell phones with image sensors that allow owners to shoot and transmit photos are starting to catch on in Japan, Maloney said, and the concept should prove popular in other areas as mobile phone services advance.

"It's really just an extension of trying to transmit data," Maloney said. "Our target market is a 14-year-old girl who wants to transmit pictures of the new pair of shoes she bought to her girlfriend."

Michelle Slaughter, an imaging analyst for research firm InfoTrends, said she expects the market for photo-ready phones to be minimal for the next year or two. But as advanced 3G (third generation) phone services proliferate, the idea is likely to catch on.

"We expect to see an emerging trend where photos are somewhat disposable," Slaughter said. "It's not just preserving memories, but more a spontaneous form of communication."

Maloney said other markets for Micron sensors include handheld computers and multifunction devices that combine photo-taking with digital audio or other uses. The low power consumption and manufacturing costs of CMOS chips give them the edge over CCD sensors in such applications, he said.

Looking further ahead, Maloney thinks those advantages, combined with increasingly sophisticated chips capable of capturing high-resolution images, will push CMOS chips further into the standalone digital camera market.

"We think CMOS will displace CCD in high-end digital still cameras over time," Maloney said.

Analysts, however, aren't so sure. A new report from research firm IDC predicts that while CMOS sensors will make some headway in the next few years, they will account for only 15 percent of the digital camera market by 2006.

Slaughter added that emerging technologies, such as chip designer Foveon's new CMOS-based X3 sensor, are likely to expand CMOS technology to other segments of the digital camera market in the the next few years.