San Francisco, CALIF. — International Business Machines Corp. is taking its latest research product out of the lab and onto the market with a new memory technology that, if successful, could change the industry.
Called magnetic random-access memory, or MRAM, it uses magnetic rather than electrical charges to store data bits. Because the chips use magnetism to store data, electrical power isn’t required for them to retain that data, unlike current dynamic random-access memory and synchronous random-access memory chips that are the standard.
IBM and Munich, Germany-based Infineon Technologies AG, a memory chipmaker, announced plans to move MRAM into commercial production on Thursday. While these changes may seem arcane and even incremental, the possibilities loom large: How about not waiting a minute or more for your personal computer or laptop to boot up? With MRAM, “instant-on” computing becomes possible – making it much more like a television or radio. From computers to cell phones to game systems, MRAM has the potential to store more information, access it faster and use less power.
“Anybody who brings all of the things that this promises to the market at a reasonable cost is going to win hands down,” said analyst Jim Handy of research firm Dataquest.
Bijan Davari, head of IBM’s technology and emerging products in the company’s microelectronics division said that Big Blue has been working on magnetic memory technology since 1974 but added that the challenge so far has been to refine the technology so that the actual memory chips would be small enough to be cost-effective.
“Potentially this could change the memory business very, very dramatically,” Davari said. “But the key word is ‘potentially.”‘
While IBM and Infineon have proved MRAM can work, they now are turning to the considerable challenge of getting the chip into development and being able to churn out large numbers of them at a reasonable cost to customers.
The chips work by storing the ones and zeros that comprise digital data in a magnetic material that is sandwiched between two metal layers. “You pass the current through and store either a one or a zero at that sandwich by switching its polarity,” Davari said.
There will be some test versions out in 2003, but IBM, which will make the chips at its own plants, doesn’t expect volume production until sometime in 2004, Davari said. “IBM has never failed to execute on any of the technology and manufacturing efforts in the past three to four years that they’ve undertaken,” said Richard Doherty, director of research at Envisioneering Group, Seaford, New York.
Still, for the MRAM chips to trickle down into the mainstream and drop sufficiently in price to make them widespread, that will take time, Handy said, estimating a figure of about 10 years. MRAM could also potentially compete with current flash memory chips that don’t lose their data when power to them is cut off.
“The biggest question of any of these new technologies is how soon will they go mainstream and be cost-effective,” Handy said. Among other benefits of the MRAM technology: in the powerful computer servers that help run the Web it could mean faster surfing and easier downloads; in cell phones it could enable wireless video and more accurate speech recognition; and in mobile digital players such as MP3 devices, users could store and watch thousands of songs and movies.
Initially, each of the chips will accommodate 256 megabytes of data and more with successive generations, Davari said, declining to comment on initial volumes and prices.