Chip Industry Eyes Newcomer

cell phone
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."

"One of the side benefits of this type of memory could be faster start up times for cell phones, small computers and other hand held devices," says CBS News Technology Analyst Larry Magid, "because the memory can get the data more quickly to the processor which means the device will be ready to use in less time."

Still, says Magid, there are some things about the new chips on the block that may ring familiar.

"Even though these are sold-state memory chips with no moving parts," says Magid, "the technology uses old-fashioned magnetism just like old audio and video tapes and computer hard drives."