SanDisk chief bullish on flash

CEO says flash memory has opportunity to store data in products ranging from camcorder phones to e-book-bags for students.

HALF MOON BAY, Calif.--The flash memory industry is facing a bright future thanks to the evolution of consumer electronics and wireless devices, the CEO of SanDisk said Monday.

Eli Harari, head of flash memory product maker SanDisk, told attendees of an investor conference here that so-called NAND flash memory is poised to go into products such as cell phones with camcorder capability, phones that double as digital music players and portable storage devices that hold textbook material for students.

Sparking demand for storage-hungry devices, Harari said, will be falling prices for NAND, which refers to a kind of semiconductor specially tuned for containing data. He predicted that the price for 1GB of flash memory--enough to hold an hour of compressed video--will drop from about $200 to less than $30 in 2007.

"NAND is basically the crude oil of many of these mobile applications," he said.

To be sure, flash memory has challengers when it comes to "fueling" phones and other devices. There are a number of technologies in the research stage--such as so-called magnetic random access memory, which, like flash memory, continues to store data even after its host computer is turned off.

Then there are hard disk drives. Drive makers also are gunning for emerging markets in the realm of digital consumer electronics and have scored big hits with small-size drives for Apple Computer's iPod and iPod Mini digital music players. A key advantage of hard drives is their low price compared with flash memory. For example, a Dell music player using a hard drive holds 15GB of music and sells for just $199.

But hard drives have their drawbacks, said Satya Chillara, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, which sponsored the conference. The problems include greater power consumption than flash memory chips and greater weight. What's more, he said, drives are susceptible to breaking as devices are banged around. "Reliability is a major issue," Chillara said.

Already, digital music players relying on flash memory are on the market. And Harari predicted phones will take on the role of music players, thanks partly to higher bandwidth allowing for faster song downloads. As an early development in this process, Harari pointed to the recent announcement that customers of Apple's iTunes music store will be able to transfer songs onto future Motorola phones.

Another market for flash memory storage is students loaded down with textbooks, he said. School children can lug 20 pounds of books home even though they need to refer to just a few pages on a particular night, Harari said. "Really what they need to carry is an electronic version of their textbooks," he said.