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3G SuperFlash Fast Approaching

Two semiconductor firms have unveiled plans to develop a third-generation SuperFlash memory technology they say will ultimately improve embedded, code storage and data storage applications.

The partnership between Silicon Storage Technology (SST) and Powerchip Semiconductor (PSC), Taiwan's largest DRAM manufacturer, marks a firm stance in the traditionally volatile memory market.

The new self-aligned, third-generation SuperFlash cell is currently under development at PSC and is based on .11 process technology. Once established, the two companies plan to scale it down to 90 and 65 nanometer (nm) nodes.

Under terms of the agreement, both companies agree to use PSC's 300mm wafer manufacturing facilities to build SST-brand products and PSC-brand licensed data storage products. SST will collect royalty from PSC based on the sales of the PSC-brand SuperFlash products.

The first product under development is a 2Gbit flash media with pin-outs and electrical specifications compatible with current NAND products. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based SST and PSC said they have recently verified the new-generation SuperFlash memory cell structure and electrical data. The plan is to complete the technology development during 2004 in order for volume production of a 2Gbit product in 2005.

SST president and CEO Bing Yeh said his company's new technology is critical in enabling NOR flash memory to achieve the densities and speeds required to effectively compete in the data storage and other high-density markets typically dominated by NAND flash memories.

"We believe the flash data storage market will become a bigger market than DRAM," he said. "Through our development partnership with PSC, we believe we will be able to extend our cost-effective, scalable technology to deep sub-micron levels and deliver the density and performance our customers will need for the next wave of consumer and communication products."

SST's SuperFlash technology is a NOR type, split-gate cell architecture that can allow for very high density memory products, making it good for data storage applications that traditionally have been addressed by traditional flash memories with NAND architectures.

The first-generation SuperFlash, introduced in 1993, has been in volume production covering memory densities from 256K to 16Mbits. The second-generation SuperFlash, started production earlier this year, is intended to cover memory densities up to 256Mbits. The third-generation SuperFlash, under development since 2002, is expected to cover memory densities from 256Mbit to 16Gbits. As of today, SST and its licensees have shipped more than 2.5 billion units of SuperFlash-based products.

The development of SuperFlash could be construed as risky considering the volatile nature of the memory chip sector. Recent estimates by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) point to the MOS Memory market (DRAMs, Flash, SRAMs, and EPROMs) as the main driving force in worldwide chip sales in 2004. The SIA's report predicts the DRAM market, followed by Flash, will lead sales in this product sector.

In 2003, the MOS Memory market is forecast to grow 16.6 percent to $31.5 billion and 32.3 percent to $41.7 billion in 2004. In 2005, this market is expected to incur a cyclical downturn with a decrease of 10.1 percent to $37.5 billion in sales. By 2006, the loss will be made up with growth resuming to 18.2 percent to $44.3 billion.

Another problem now facing chipmakers is the cost of actually building and bringing chips to market. The industry trend to move to 90-nanometer process chips now comes with an estimated $30 million price tag.

The trade association suggests that if a company is spending 20 percent on R&D, the revenue target of that company should be about $150 million. Compound that with a company that has at least With 10 percent market share $1.5 billion Justification of ASIC/ASSP development requires $1billion

"Being in the memory industry, we have always kept an eye on the development of flash technologies," Dr. Frank Huang, chairman of PSC said in a statement. "Our relationship with SST was naturally established to exploit our companies' synergies. We are dedicated to the expansion of our product offering and SuperFlash will allow us to address new high end data flash markets."

SST is also hedging its bets in other areas. Besides making its own products based on SuperFlash, SST also licenses the SuperFlash technology to IBM, Motorola, NEC, Samsung, Toshiba and TSMC.