Achieving a long-sought goal of the $48 billion memory chip industry, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. announced the commercial availability of a chip that combines traditional memory's endurance with a hard drive's ability to keep data while powered down.
The chips, called magnetoresistive random-access memory or MRAM, maintain information by relying on magnetic properties rather than an electrical charge. Unlike flash memory, which also can keep data without power, MRAM is fast to read and write bits, and doesn't degrade over time.
Freescale, which was spun off of Motorola Inc. in July 2004, said Monday it has been producing the 4-megabit MRAM chips at an Arizona factory for two months to build inventory. A number of chip makers have been pursuing the technology for a decade or more, including IBM Corp.
Sometimes referred to as "universal" memory, MRAM could displace a number of chips found in every electronic device, from PCs, cell phones, music players and cameras to the computing components of kitchen appliances, cars and airplanes.
"This is the most significant memory introduction in this decade," said Will Strauss, an analyst with research firm Forward Concepts. "This is radically new technology. People have been dabbling in this for years, but nobody has been able to make it in volume."
Electronic memory is ubiquitous in today's world, but each flavor of memory-chip technology has different strengths and weaknesses. Often times, a single device has multiple types of memory chips to take advantage of the benefits of a particular technology.
Static and dynamic random access memory chips, used in PCs and elsewhere, are fast but lose data when the power is switched off. Flash memory chips, which are commonly found in music players, cameras and cell phones, retain information but are slower and degrade over time.
Bob Merritt, an analyst with Semico Research, said memory makers are hunting technology that will be faster, smaller, cheaper and retain data when the power is off to help run portable computers and cell phones.
"The older memory technologies are awkward to work with in a mobile computing environment," Merritt said. "This is a significant step forward and absolutely critical for moving into the smaller forms that consumers and industry want."
Ultimately, the technology could displace the RAM found in PCs, enabling systems that boot up immediately because data don't have to be reloaded into the memory chips.
Freescale has been working on the technology for nearly a decade, said Saied Tehrani, who directs the Austin-based company's MRAM program. He said Freescale already has customers, but he declined to name any.
Freescale said it isn't interested in high-volume markets but will license its patents to other companies.
The first markets for MRAM chips are likely to be in automotive and industrial settings, where durability is critical. Tehrani said they would also be suited for data-logging devices, such as airline black boxes that store data on aircraft performance and must be recoverable after a crash.
MRAM is one of several emerging technologies that could replace established chips, at least in some applications.
Texas Instruments Inc. and other companies are working with Colorado-based Ramtron International Corp. to develop higher-capacity chips using FRAM, or ferroelectric random-access memory. It also retains data in the absence of electricity.
Though FRAM has been commercially available for several years, its use has been limited to niche applications. A TI spokesman said FRAM could be embedded in TI's digital signal processors or microcontrollers.
Most of the companies working on MRAM have touted prototypes and research advances but have been quiet about commercial production plans. That could change after Freescale's announcement.
"Freescale is the first one that says, 'I'm ready to take orders,'" said Merritt, the Semico analyst. "Other companies will start to say, 'Here's where I am in my program.' We'll see who shows up."