Intel plans return to embedded flash market

Intel has developed a new family of embedded flash memory products that it says will be needed for increasingly multifunctional consumer electronics products.

Intel plans to ship a new family of embedded NOR-type flash memory chips with capacities as high as 1G bits to meet growing demand for the technology in consumer electronics products.

Intel will begin shipping 64M-bit, 128M-bit and 512M-bit embedded flash memory parts before July and will have 1G-bit parts available by the end of the year, said Darin Billerbeck, general manager of Intel's Flash Products Group, speaking during the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) conference in Tokyo.

Flash is a rewritable memory technology that retains its data when power is switched off. One type of flash, NAND, is commonly found in removable memory cards and is used to store data such as digital images. The NOR type of embedded memory that Intel makes is generally used to store software code and is used in products such as set-top boxes and routers.

To date, Intel's embedded memory products have ranged from 8M-bit to 256M-bit capacity and most demand has so far been for the 8M-bit to 128M-bit parts, said Allen Holmes, product marketing director at Intel's Flash Products Group.

However, vendors have been adding functions to even relatively simple products and they will require more embedded memory, Holmes said. For example, products such as set-top boxes now include Web browsers.

"We've been getting a lot of customer inquiries for 256M bits recently. These days, set-top boxes have to cope with HDTV (high-definition TV) and anti-piracy features, and all this is driving up the code requirement," Holmes said.

To meet such needs, Intel has developed software development tools for consumer electronics vendors so its flash memory chips can handle several operating systems, including Microsoft's Windows CE and Linux, according to the company.

The new flash chips are the first developed by the company for embedded applications since 1999. In recent years, Intel has concentrated on supplying a different type of NOR flash chip used in mobile phones. Now, Intel is trying to get back into the embedded flash market, which it sees growing in revenue from about US$4 billion this year to about US$9 billion in 2009, according to the company.

However, Intel has lost a lot of ground in this market to competitors such as STMicroelectronics, Atmel and Spansion, said Mark DeVoss, a memory analyst with U.S. market researcher iSuppli. Spansion is the flash memory subsidiary of Advanced Micro Devices and Fujitsu.

When Intel abandoned the embedded flash market in favor of chips designed for wireless applications, they irritated a lot of current customers, DeVoss said. "It will be interesting to see if those customers will be wooed back to Intel as their customers' products often require support for five to 20 years, and if they were burned by Intel in the past they may wonder if it will happen again," he said.

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