Toshiba doubles its embedded flash capacity to catch up with Samsung

Thumb drives and portable music players may continue their rapid capacity increase, thanks to #2 flash supplier Toshiba introducing 32 gigabit chips this fall. It's a big gamble, though, for a catch-up player in a declining market.

Just 16 months after the company said it was ready to begin sampling 16 gigabit (Gb) NAND flash memory for embedded devices, using its 56-nanometer lithography process, Toshiba announced late this morning that it would begin sampling 32 Gb embedded flash devices using its 43-nm process in October.

While Toshiba is playing the news as a kind of acceleration of Moore's Law, the fact is, there's a lot more driving Toshiba's motives than just upholding one of Intel's core principles. Flash market leader Samsung had announced it had developed a 40-nm process for fabricating 32 Gb NAND as long ago as September 2006. Those chips are already going into Samsung's solid-state drives.

According to hardware industry analyst iSuppli, Toshiba has been closing the gap with Samsung, making considerable progress throughout 2007. But that gap was actually huge to begin with: Samsung earned 74% more revenue than Toshiba in NAND flash sales in 2006, but 51% more in 2007.

Just a few days ago, iSuppli warned that conditions in the overall memory market were returning to their dismal status of previous years, where supply outpaces demand, inventories swell up, and prices melt down. DRAM prices in the third quarter of this year could decline by as much as 10%; and a much welcomed price rally in NAND this last spring ended up fizzling out.

One potential strategy for fixing this problem could be helping resellers and OEMs to flush out their existing inventories, and suffer the short-term consequences, with the promise of higher-grade, better performing products not far down the pike. That could be part of Toshiba's incentive, besides simply saving face.

One of the key technologies that is enabling this doubling of capacity is multi-level cell (MLC), where the old binary bits we thought would always form the core of computer memory are replaced with multi-state entities. With each new state an MLC cell can represent, capacity is improved by a power of two: thus, 8 Gb NAND in 2006, 16 Gb in '07, and 32 Gb in '08.

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