A personal computer 1.3 centimeters thick, 250 grams in weight and $ 100 in price is one of the goals of a trans-Pacific partnership forged last week to exploit the latest thing memory chips. The chips are railed “flash memories” and advocates say they will soon replace disc drives as well as conventional memory chips for storing data in electronic equipment.
The advantage of flash memories is that, unlike the dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) chips which are the storehouses in today’s computers, they do not need a constant supply of electicity.
Flash memories are variations on the read-only memory (ROM) chips which contain instructions preprogrammed by manufacturers of electronic equipment. Manufacturers sometimes want to alter these instructions, so EPROMs, erasable programmable ROMs were developed which can be erased then reprogrammed with new instructions.
Some EPROMs are erased by illuminating them with ultraviolet light or lip to 20 minutes, then reprogrammed electrically bit by bit. Other called E2PROMs can be erased centrically bit by bit, then rcprogrammed in the same way. Flash memories are E2PROMs that can be entirely erased by a single electrical pulse, then reprogrammed bit by bit. Flash memories are considered to be the best candidate for future electronic devices because they are cheap, long lasting, and pack more bits into a smaller area.
The Japanese electronics and engineering company Toshiba invented flash memories in 1984. At that time, however, the company was ploughing money into factories to develop DRAM chips, an investment that paid off in the late 1980s when Toshiba, with its competitors NEC and Mitsubishi Electric, virtually cornered the world market in memory chips. Intel, the largest independent semiconductor firm in the US, took up Toshiba’s technology and turned it into a marketable product. Intel had dropped out of making bulk quantities of DRAMs because of Japanese competition, and concentrated instead on more valuable products such as microprocessors. It saw flash memories as a valuable specialized product, and today makes 85 per cent of the world’s flash memories.
Last month, however, Intel joined forces with the Japanese electronics company Sharp, to produce flash chips on a huge scale. The companies agreed to work together to manufacture flash memories capable of storing the same density of information as DRAMs (the largest capacity DRAMs now on the market can store 4 megabits of data). They say that production in large quantities will begin in 1993.
Such chips will revolutionize the electronics business, according to Sharp’s vice president, Atsushi Asada. Today’s computers depend on magnetic discs or battery-powered memory chips to store data. But both these approaches are slow and consume a lot of electrical power.
By the end of 1995, Intel said, a flash memory will be cheaper than a magnetic hard disc, opening the way for a new generation of more rugged portable electronic equipment, such as musical instruments and cameras. Richard Pashley, Intel’s general manager, said that a notebook computer relying entirely on flash memories would run for 200 hours on batteries. Today’s machines usually last only two or three hours.
– Michael Cross