Sales of NOR flash in wireless applications in 2013 will decline by nearly one third compared to last year, although use of the memory remains strong in the embedded segment, according to a Flash Dynamics brief from information and analytics provider IHS.
Wireless-based NOR revenue is forecast to reach $725.0 million by year-end, down a sharp 28 percent from $1.0 billion in 2012. The drop is projected in spite of a strong second-quarter finish of $801 million, up not only from the first quarter but also a solid 5 percent increase from the same time last year-an impressive showing given the maturity of the industry.
But with its glory days long past, NOR flash is headed toward continuing decline in a segment where it is increasingly falling out of favor. Wireless NOR revenue will fall further to $480.4 million next year, on its way to just $190.4 million by 2017.
NOR's troubles in the wireless market stem from rival memories now being used in its place.
In smartphones, NOR-also known as parallel NOR-has been squeezed out by NAND, which can emulate NOR capabilities at far higher densities. On the low end where entry-level handsets are involved, parallel NOR is feeling pressure from serial peripheral interface (SPI) NOR-a low-power type of flash increasingly important to handset manufacturers interested in keeping costs down to a minimum. Meanwhile in media tablets, another wireless market of increasing significance, NOR is used only in Android-based models but not in the Apple iPad, the industry leader.
The irreversible trend toward falling NOR revenue in wireless applications is propelling memory manufacturers to diversify their base to embedded applications and focus on multitechnology strategies. To this end, memory players have been taking serious initiatives, such as branching into next-generation nonvolatile memories or even going into a non-memory direction, all in hopes of remaining relevant as markets shift and adopt new memory paradigms for wireless devices.
NOR still strong in ebook readers
Despite its inevitable decline, NOR still has some legs left in mobile wireless devices, particularly in ebook readers. For instance, NOR flash is deployed in Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite as well the Nook Simple Touch from Barnes & Noble. In both devices, NOR chips store the bits that determine e-ink grayscale intensity.
More NOR chips are also used in the Microsoft Surface Pro PC tablet-five instead of just one for the lower-end Surface RT model-auguring well for products in the future that might employ a similar storage design.
And while greater use in specific devices does not alter NOR's fortunes overall, such opportunities reinforce the theme of universality for which NOR has long been known and demonstrate that the product is far from dead.
NOR alternative PCM: Positive growth but limited
The NOR alternative known as Phase-Change Memory (PCM) remains a market worth watching, IHS believes, with current forecasts of $67 million this year jumping to a projected $138 million in 2014, before growth flattens to $170 million by 2016. Even so, its long-term outlook is being toned down, with target markets narrower than initially believed and product adoption still limited long after PCM manufacturing has been expanded.
After years of production delays, the only major handset brands utilizing PCM are Nokia and Lenovo, as the Intel chipset they employ requires PCM technology.
New revenue streams?
Given the limited upside of both NOR and PCM, memory manufacturers seeking additional revenue streams to replace lost NOR income must turn elsewhere or explore other courses of action.
California-based memory maker Spansion, for instance, is going through vertical integration around industrial applications, while fellow California player SanDisk with Toshiba of Japan have demonstrated a new type of memory product known as resistive RAM. Such moves will help the industry deal with the evolving technology landscape.
Moving forward, the nonvolatile memories that will make their impact felt in the next few years will be 3-D variations of NAND flash and memory involving the serial interface, with parallel NOR steadily receding into the background, IHS believes.
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