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Is NAND flash about to hit a dead end?

Some believe the ubiquitous chips have five years left — at most.

February 4, 2010 06:01 AM ET

Computerworld - When IM Flash Technologies (IMFT) announced this week that it's manufacturing a 25-nanometer (nm) NAND flash chip, the company also admitted that shrinking the technology much further may not be possible because of problems with bit errors and reliability.

If that turns out to be true, one of the basic building blocks used for storage in solid-state drives (SSDs) and memory cards may be nearing a dead end.

"I think in the next four years or five years, it's probably going to be the case" that NAND will no longer be the storage medium, said Gregory Wong, a flash memory analyst with market research firm Forward Insights. "Everybody's looking at alternatives."

NAND flash memory has been the single biggest change to drive technology in recent years, with the storage medium showing up in data centers, high-end laptops like Apple's MacBook Air and in memory cards in mobile devices. Apple has largely driven the adoption rate with its use of NAND flash in its popular iPods and iPhones, sales of which helped drive flash memory costs down through mass production.

iSuppli Corp. forecasts that the global flash memory card market will grow from 530 million units this year to 9.5 billion units by 2013, a market that will then be worth $26.5 billion. The market for high-capacity memory chips has a lot of room to grow, according to iSuppli, largely because of the rise of smartphones. The more features they offer — whether it's touch screens, wireless Internet access or video capabilities — the more storage they need.

"As we move to high-definition video, that's going to require higher storage capacities," said Wong. "The issue, of course, is ... do you really need HD video on a tiny screen? No, but companies will use HD as a way to differentiate themselves."

For example, Samsung, the world's largest NAND flash memory maker, just released a new 64GB moviNAND embedded chip and 32GB microSD removable memory card for mobile devices. Both were created with its new 30nm lithography technology.

Steve Weinger, senior manager for NAND flash marketing at Samsung Semiconductor Inc., said mobile phone video capabilities and the desire to store a never-ending stream of applications, movies, television shows and video clips from sites like is driving chip development and a 34% annual growth in sales. In fact, NAND flash chip memory has doubled in capacity in a little more than a year, he said.

"You could eventually have in the palm of your hand all your movies, your pictures and everything else," he said. "I recently watched a football game on my iPhone with the DirectTV application. It was really crystal clear."

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