Updated from 8:13 a.m. EDTFreescale Semiconductor ( FSL) began selling a new generation of memory chips Monday, becoming the first company to commercialize a technology that has until now been confined to the R&D labs of various firms. The Austin, Texas, company is producing a 4-megabit MRAM chip in volume quantities, culminating more than 10 years of its own development work. According to Freescale, the chip offers a combination of features and performance previously available only in separate memory technologies. Freescale's initial crop of MRAM chips will have a relatively low storage capacity and cater to a niche market. But by commercializing MRAM technology, Freescale hopes to position itself to tap into much larger and lucrative markets. "Today, if you look at the Freescale product portfolio, we have products going from consumer all the way to automotive that require multiple
Several companies have experimented with MRAM, which stands for Magnetoresistive Random Access Memory, during the past decade, but its history has been marked by delays and unmet expectations. IBM ( IBM) and Infineon ( IFX) have demonstrated MRAM prototypes capable of storing 128 megabits. But neither firm has moved ahead with volume production. In 2005, Cypress Semiconductor ( CY) announced it was divesting itself of its MRAM subsidiary, despite claiming to have delivered working MRAM chip samples to several customers only a month earlier. Cypress said at the time that it had concluded that the market for MRAM was too much of a niche to justify further investment. Freescale's MRAM debut is unlikely to move the needle. The company says the chip will initially be sold as a stand-alone product to replace the clunky SRAM chip/battery pack combination found in certain networking and printer products today. But Freescale says it has no intention of getting into the commodity business of selling stand-alone memory chips. The company sees a bigger opportunity in integrating MRAM memory with a microprocessor or microcontroller and selling it as an all-in-one solution to embedded processor markets like automobiles. Freescale, which was spun off from Motorola ( MOT) in 2004, generates about a quarter of its revenue selling the PowerPC microprocessor to various markets for embedded processors. Marrying MRAM performance with a microprocessor creates a new product category that could prove popular in the emerging generation of electronics devices, says Semico Research memory analyst Bob Merritt. "Although this first
MRAM version is a stand-alone nonvolatile memory with very fast read-write capabilities, the really fascinating part about this is that it also appears to be a very good embedded nonvolatile technology," says Merritt. While Freescale has the distinction of being the first to market with MRAM, Merritt says other companies working on the technology could soon follow suit. "This may bring out some of the other participants that have been either waiting for the market to develop or for one of the other competitors to show their cards," says Merritt.