Sunnyvale, CA —As the mobile Internet converges with ever-shrinking cell phones and pagers, engineers have to boost memory and save energy at the same time. An impossible task?
The answer may be flash memory, a solid-state chip that is non-volatile—meaning it does not need electric power to hold its content. Thanks to flash memory, cell phones will always boot up faster than laptops, which have to first write their hard drives to RAM (random access memory). And without a constant power drain, flash uses just 5% as much electricity as conventional memory, so it's often used in place of spinning disk drives in power-sensitive applications.
Flash memory has two basic applications: high-speed writes, such as hard drives; and write-once-read-often applications, such as cell phones, says David Guidry, a product manager at SanDisk Corp., which makes removable flash memory cards such as the MultiMediaCard and CompactFlash, and a new embedded memory card called TriFlash.
Because of these strengths, flash is also used on airplanes' "black box" flight data recorders so the chips will store data even when their power source on the plane has been destroyed. Another high-profile application is the AIBO robotic dog, a hot holiday gift item last year which uses Sony's "Memory Stick" to learn up to 50 words by voice recognition. Other flashcard and Memory Stick applications include: digital cameras and camcorders, handheld GPS units, and set-top boxes.
Intel and AMD also make flash chips. And IBM recently announced plans to team with Infineon Technologies to create magnetic random access memory (MRAM) by 2004. Like flash, this next-generation memory method spurns electricity, instead using magnetic charges to store data. And it uses very little battery power, retains information when the power's turned off, and can provide instant-start PCs, without waiting for the memory to boot up.
Also in the future, SanDisk plans to supply SD (secure digital) cards in 2001 for applications in Palm Pilots. SanDisk is one of the 150 members of the SD Association, which sets standards and researches new applications. The company projects it will be able to store 60 minutes of video data on a 1GB flash disk by 2002, and a full-length feature film on a 16GB chip by 2008.