Just last month, Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., held a briefing to announce the fact that in the 12 years since it first started shipping flash memories, it has shipped over one billion units. As amazing as that accomplishment is—to sell a billion of anything besides hamburgers—Intel expects that it will take just two more years to sell the second billion. To me, such numbers are staggering when you begin to peel back the layers and see the end products that are actually driving the demand for the flash memories.
The use of flash memories has become ubiquitous. Now, you can find such devices in almost every digital product—MP3 players, PDAs, modems, backup tape drives, personal computers, cellular telephones, and more. They also have wended their way into industrial systems, test equipment, network hardware, and many other systems. Many of these systems, especially those in the consumer world, are poised to take off. Portable music players, for example, should soon be shipping millions of units per year.
Probably the largest volume application of all, the cellular phone, has already experienced a tremendous growth in the number of units shipped. At the same time, the flash storage requirements within the phone have doubled or quadrupled. The huge growth can be attributed to many factors. One is the changeover from analog to digital, which has caused many owners to replace their old analog-only phones with digital, or dual-mode phones in order to get the features that are available through digital technology. Another factor involves the lower operating cost of a digital phone. Rates have dropped and new plan options, such as the ability to share a pool of minutes among up to four phones, has kept demand high.
Lastly, the new features possible with the so-called 2.5 and third-generation wireless standards will permit Internet connectivity, and that's starting to drive future demand. In another year or two, there will be over one billion cell phones in use. To handle the new features, like Internet web browsing and video transfers, next-generation phones will pack 32 and even 64 Mbits of flash. This will hold not only the more complex algorithms, but also video, audio, and data files. With that much memory, cell phones can include entertainment functions. For instance, several companies have demonstrated an integrated MP3 player in the handset.
Thus, unit shipments of a few hundred million phones per year will continue to drive the demand for flash. What this demand has done, though, is cause a shortage of the flash memory chips needed by the phone manufacturers. That shortage is translating into the construction of new factories to produce more memories. Will this lead to another overcapacity cycle like we saw in the DRAM market over a decade ago? Or, has the industry learned its lesson? What do you think?