Intel buying - not making - some flash chips

Intel is procuring NAND flash to add to some mobile phone chip packages, and hopes its embedded flash will help it regain the top spot in flash memory.

Intel is procuring NAND flash memory from third-party suppliers to include in its chip packages, a company executive said Tuesday, a sign of how the chip maker is struggling to adapt to shifting demand patterns in the flash memory market.

"We are procuring NAND like we would procure RAM" to package with Intel chips and sell to some cellular phone companies, said Troy Winslow, flash memory marketing manager for Intel Asia Pacific, at the Intel Developer Forum in Taipei.

Some mobile phone makers have turned to NAND flash memory for its greater per-chip capacity, as next generation phones add cameras, music players and other storage intensive functions, industry analysts say. The trend is a threat to NOR flash, traditionally the main type of memory chip used in mobile phones and Intel's mainstay offering in the flash market.

"If NAND speed gets better, it could potentially wipe out the NOR market," said Sun Chung, a semiconductor analyst at Nomura Securities in Seoul.

Flash is a rewritable memory type that retains data when power is switched off. NAND flash is commonly found in removable memory cards and is used to store data in devices like digital cameras and MP3 players. NOR flash memory, the type Intel makes, is generally used to store software code and is mainly used in mobile phones.

Just a few years ago, NOR was the dominant flash memory, due mainly to brisk mobile phone sales worldwide. But NAND caught up as digital cameras and other devices requiring more storage capacity took off. The market for NAND has been growing at a brisk 150 percent each year for the past few years, said Chung. Going forward, it will more than triple in value to US$18 billion by 2009, from US$5 billion last year, according to market researcher In-Stat.

But Intel's 2005 flash memory plan does not include a NAND equivalent. The company has said it expects to regain its leading position in flash memory by continuing with its NOR lines and a new NOR-type embedded flash memory product.

Intel probably does not want to enter the NAND market because it does not own the intellectual property necessary to make the chips, Chung said. It would likely have to gain licenses from either SanDisk or Toshiba, the inventors of NAND.

To compete against NAND, Intel will need to offer "some other next generation technologies," Winslow said. But the company has not announced any new product to match NAND directly, he said.

Intel has been in a battle to regain ground in flash memory ever since it lost its title to Samsung Electronics in the second half of 2003. Samsung is the world's biggest maker of NAND flash memory chips.

Retaking the lead in flash memory could be tough for Intel, mainly due to the fast growing market for NAND, and competition from Samsung and a growing list of newcomers to the NAND market, such as Micron Technology and Infineon Technologies.

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Dan Nystedt

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