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Finally, Phase Change?

The race to mass produce the next innovation in nonvolatile semiconductor memory appears to have a new contender.   Phase change memory (PCM) has been touted by industry leaders for years.  As far back as December of 2006 Wilhelm Beignvogl, SVP, technical innovation, Qimonda AG, stated, “phase change memories have the clear potential to play an important role in future memory systems”.  This statement came as researchers from IBM, Macronix, and Qimonda were prototyping the PCM memory device nearly four years ago.

Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. and Numonyx BV recently announced they are jointly developing market specifications for PCM.  Could this be the key, finally, for wide scale commercial acceptance of PCM?  Most in the industry agree that developing package specifications and ensuring pin for pin compatibility will help speed up the adoption of PCM.  The two companies working together may also encourage future adoption as OEM’s are weary of contracting with only one manufacturer of new, unproven, technology.

A potential hindrance to the wide spread acceptance of PCM into new applications in the future is the densities these PCM products will be manufactured at.  The Samsung and Numonyx PCM chips being sampled right now are 512Mbit.  These are the same chips being targeted for volume production in 2010 for replacement of  NOR code storage in Smartphones.  Because these chips can be manufactured with more die on the same wafer and the chips require less power, OEM’s will almost certainly find this to be a cost effective NOR replacement. 

As far as PCM gaining a substantial future marketplace presence, the targeted markets of embedded systems and high-end computing NOR devices looks promising.  Ultimately expanding into NAND will be determined by the success of advancing the design and process to beyond 32 gigabit range.  Samsung and Numonyx plan to roll out a PCM interface meeting the specifications of the JEDEC LPDDR2 Low Power Memory Device Standard in 2011.  The industry will just have to wait and see if the chips produced at that time are in the 32 gigabit neighborhood.  If they are in the neighborhood, the final “phase” of Phase Change Memory may, in fact, “change” the memory landscape.

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