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Intel to tackle flash memory card market

Reinvigorated by gains in flash memory for cell phones, Intel is planning to go after consumer electronics, card market.

SAN FRANCISCO--In 2004, Intel recovered ground it had lost the year before in the market for flash memory. In 2005, it will lay plans to conquer new territory.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker will start to produce flash memory for consumer electronics devices, which typically sell for less than cellular flash, Intel's historical strength. Following that move, the company will begin to make flash for memory cards, a fast-growing market that's been lucrative for Samsung and Toshiba in the past few years.

"Intel is no longer a niche business that plays in cellular only."
--Darin Billerbeck
vice president, Intel Communications Group

"We realized (our previous approach) wasn't the greatest strategy because we excluded ourselves from a lot of different markets," Darin Billerbeck, vice president of the Intel Communications Group, said during a presentation and a pursuant interview with CNET News.com Wednesday at the Intel Developer Forum. "Intel is no longer a niche business that plays in cellular only."

Getting into the card market, however, will require adding a new and different type of memory to Intel's development process and production lines. The company currently makes only NOR flash, which is highly reliable and used to store software code. NOR, however, is less dense than the NAND flash made by Samsung and Toshiba that's used in cards to store data such as MP3 files and photos.

"In order to be relevant in the removable-card market, we need a data play," Billerbeck said. "We're looking at a lot of different technologies."

While Billerbeck wouldn't specify which type of memory Intel would produce for the card market, he said the company wouldn't try to sell NOR flash into that market--except in a few circumstances.

Products coming in 2005 include "Sibley," a flash memory chip that can store 2 bits of data per memory cell and operate much faster than current Intel flash. Sibley will be made on the 90-nanometer process and aimed at segments of the cellular market that Intel currently doesn't participate in. Ninety nanometers refers to the average feature size of the transistors on a chip. Processors are already made on this manufacturing process while cutting-edge flash is made on the 110-nanometer process.

Sibley chips will arrive in the second half of 2005 and will initially be capable of holding 512 megabits of data--low for NAND but high for NOR flash. A 1-gigabit version will come out in 2006. Memory chips are measured in megabits, although final products such as phones and memory cards measure memory in megabytes.

"There is about 50 percent of the cellular market we don't play in," Billerbeck said.

The company will also come out with "Sixmile," a chip for consumer electronics that will debut at 256 megabits. Consumer electronics, Billerbeck acknowledged, is a tough market. Some 16-megabit parts sell for as little as 83 cents. While that's far lower than the prices Intel currently fetches for its high-end flash chips, the company will seek deals in the CE arena.

Billerbeck did not specify when Intel will begin to produce memory for the card market.

As memory battles take place, the flash market as a whole is also looking at difficult technical hurdles just a few years away. Many analysts and even executives state that alternatives to flash will likely have to start coming to the fore after 2009. Flash memory makers will likely be able to shrink their parts and produce them on the 35-nanometer process, which begins in 2009, but the basic architecture of flash will make it difficult to shrink it further.

"After 35 nanometers the wheels begin to fall off," he said. One alternative Intel is looking at is Ovonics Unified Memory. This technology stores data in material that is similar to the stuff used to make CDs.

As is traditional in this often contentious market, Billerbeck took a couple of potshots at rivals Samsung and Spansion, a joint venture between Advanced Micro Devices and Fujitsu primarily managed by AMD. Spansion's premier flash chips are sold under the MirrrorBit brand. The company has been having difficulty producing these in large numbers, he said, because they are not easy to shrink. Spansion is currently making MirrorBit on the 110-nanometer manufacturing process and will have a tough time going to 90-nanometer, he asserted.

Tom Ely, chief marketing officer for Spansion, dismissed Intel's claims and said that AMD, in its factories, has already produced samples of a 1-gigabit MirrorBit chip at 90 nanometers.

Spansion, which also makes NOR, passed Intel in market share in the second half of 2003 but got surpassed by Intel again in the third quarter of last year.

Tuesday, when asked whether Intel was deliberately lowering prices to take market share from Spansion, Intel CEO Craig Barrett replied, "They didn't complain when we raised prices and lost market share."