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Sailing into the Flash Doldrums

Despite a gloomy market, Numonyx announces new chips.
December 17, 2008

Flash memory is a major reason for the ubiquity of handheld gadgets, from MP3 players to video games. But this year has been rough on companies that manufacture flash memory chips. Supply is outstripping demand, as the economic downturn has many people postponing purchase of the newest gadgets. Research firm iSuppli projects that worldwide flash revenue will plummet 14 percent in 2008 and slip another 15 percent in 2009. And Toshiba, the second-largest flash manufacturer, announced that it would slash production by 30 percent next year, after posting the lowest profit in four years.

Chips are down: A semiconductor die from Numonyx, with two gigabytes of NAND flash memory and 41-nanometer transistors.

Amid all this turmoil, however, Swiss memory startup Numonyx has announced a slew of new high-capacity flash products that cover a broad range of applications. There are chips designed to be integrated into devices such as mobile phones and navigation systems, added as storage in computers, and used in high-capacity memory cards.

The new chips have transistors that measure only 41 nanometers across, down from the 48 to 57 nanometers of Numonyx’s previous chips. Fabio Gualandris, vice president and general manager of the data management group at Numonyx, says that the 41-nanometer chips indicate the company’s rapid progress since April, when it was launched to commercialize technology from Intel and STMicroelectronics.

The innovation was necessary to make Numonyx competitive with the leading flash manufacturers. According to Jim Handy, an analyst for research firm Objective Analysis, Samsung, the world’s leader in flash, uses a 43-nanometer processing technology. And Intel recently announced a 34-nanometer process that allows for even more flash memory cells to be crammed onto a chip, although it has yet to release any products with features that small.

Handy notes that Numonyx has lost market share since April. He suspects that the startup is releasing the new lineup of chips now to “try to get their revenue back up from when they split off from Intel.”

The new offerings, announced today, focus on a type of flash memory called NAND, commonly used for storage due to its high capacity; another type of flash, called NOR, is used to execute small bits of code due to its relative speed. Numonyx announced chips that provide up to four gigabytes of NAND alone; chips that have up to 32 gigabytes of NAND, as well as code that allows them to be embedded in devices such as televisions and set-top boxes; and chips with up to eight gigabytes of storage for use in memory cards.

Gualandris says that despite the downturn in the flash market, Numonyx’s portfolio of intellectual property should make it successful in the long run. The company’s strengths, he says, lie in its broad range of offerings and its development of an up-and-coming technology called phase-change memory (PCM). Since Numonyx–like Samsung–manufactures NAND and NOR flash as well as PCM, it is able to build hybrid devices that exploit the advantages of all three memory technologies, which can be tailored to specific applications. For instance, phase-change memory promises to be faster than either NOR or NAND, but it doesn’t yet have the storage capacity of flash. Like flash, PCM is a nonvolatile memory that stores data even when the power is off. In computers or phones, it could thus be used to replace DRAM, a type of memory that runs software but, since it can’t store data when the power is off, takes a few seconds to start up.

Additionally, notes Gualandris, Numonyx has proprietary firmware built into its flash chips that extends their life and prevents memory cells from failing. (Flash chips tend to wear out after data has been written to them more than 100,000 times.)

Gualandris says that he hopes Numonyx’s broad selection of memory technologies will help it cope with the slipping market. He avoided answering questions about cutting manufacturing over the next year, saying only that “manufacturing will depend on the market.”

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