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Intel's "revolutionary" memory isn't quite so

The giant chipmaker announced this "flash" memory technology three years ago, to much the same fanfare.

The same memory technology that Intel (INTC) announced today was unveiled by Intel more than three years ago, amid similar fanfare.

In the interim, vendors such as SanDisk and ISD have developed similar technologies, which takes some zip out of the impact of Intel?s "revolutionary" memory chips.

Intel?s memory technology, dubbed StrataFlash, stores two pieces, or bits, of information in each tiny data "holder" within a memory chip. A memory chip is made up of millions of these data holders, referred to as cells. StrataFlash doubles storage capacity, which had traditionally been limited to one bit per cell.

Back in 1994 Intel held a special briefing for the press and analysts to say that it had produced a prototype of a chip using StrataFlash and that initial product announcements would made in 1995, according to trade press reports at that time.

Well, here it is 1997 and manufacturers such as ISD, SanDisk, Toshiba, and Samsung have developed similar and competing technologies, according to Bruce Bonner, an analyst at Dataquest. Bonner was an Intel employee at the time the technology was first disclosed and a part of Intel?s flash memory group.

ISD?s voice recorder technology, for example, which employs multiple-bits-per-cell flash memory storage in a manner similar to Intel's StrataFlash, offers greater capacity than Intel?s StrataFlash, Bonner said.

SanDisk too offers technology comparable to Intel?s. SanDisk produces credit-card-size PC Cards--which fit into the small slots on all notebook computers--that can hold as much as 300MB of data. Individual SanDisk flash memory chipsets hold up to 8MB of data.

Each Intel chip also holds 8MB of data. The chips will find their way into products such as Smart Modular Technologies' flash memory cards, which store up to 224MB of data.

Bonner further said that Toshiba and Samsung are already delivering standard-technology 64-megabit flash memory--equivalent in capacity to Intel?s new chips. Eight bits equals a byte.

"Today, Toshiba and Samsung have the best flash storage technology" because they are achieving equivalent storage capacities with standard technology, Bonner said. But he added, "[Intel?s new technology] has the promise to do better."

The real significance of Intel's announcement is the fact that multibit flash memory technology is getting "backing from a major technological power," he said.

Despite the hype, flash memory will not replace the most ubiquitous memory found in PCs, called Dynamic RAM or DRAM, nor will it replace hard disk drives, according to Bonner. In the past, flash had often been touted as a technology that would replace hard disk drives in smaller devices since it saves information permanently, like a hard disk drive. (Standard memory, such as DRAM, loses its contents when the device is turned off.)

But, per megabyte, flash is much too expensive to replace hard disk drives, which now go for pennies per megabyte. Flash costs a few dollars per megabyte.

As for DRAM, it is simply too different a creature to be replaced by flash. Flash, because of its basic architecture, cannot handle data as fast as DRAM memory chips--and speed is of paramount importance in PCs. Pricing is also a disadvantage. The price of DRAM memory per megabyte is on average about $2.50, for flash this is about $3.50, according to Bonner.

But Bonner said that flash will be an enabler for the emerging category of digital cameras and handheld devices.

Intel should be able to increase the amount of data stored per cell to three bits and then to four bits in the future, according to Bonner.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.