Updated from 8:13 a.m. EDT

Freescale 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 types of memories," says Freescale director of MRAM technology Saied Tehrani. "We see applications for MRAM in almost all of these spaces."

MRAM is one of several emerging technologies that could grab a slice of the $48 billion memory market as tech's center of gravity shifts from desktop-based personal computers to portable, low-power electronic devices.

While flash memory -- which retains data even when the power supply is switched off -- serves that need today, it's not ideal for all applications. MRAM, which can also store data without a power supply, boasts much faster performance than flash and can erase and rewrite data unlimited times (whereas flash memory can do this between 100,000 and a million times before the memory wears out).

"These are the combination of characteristics that you do not find in any other semiconductor today," says Tehrani.

Of course, flash chips are available in multigigabit densities, whereas Freescale's MRAM roadmap currently tops out at 16 megabits. As a result, MRAM is less likely to displace flash in the next iPod than it is to appear in new types of electronic devices that have smaller appetites for data.

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