NOR flash memory faces reduced prospects ahead, having already lost the battle to rival NAND flash memory in mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, according to an IHS iSuppli Mobile & Embedded Memory market tracker report from information and analytics provider IHS.
Industry revenue this year for NOR flash is forecast to reach $3.41 billion, down from $3.48 billion in 2012. The revenue levels in recent years are a far cry from the blockbuster days of NOR a decade ago, such as when NOR pulled down a record $9.0 billion in 2004, its best year ever.
NOR revenue will further recede to $3.41 billion in 2013 and to $3.25 billion in 2014, before recovering slightly in 2015 and 2016, and then moderating to $3.27 billion by 2016.
With mobile memory solutions evolving to meet the demands of increasing performance and storage requirements, NAND flash has taken over as the preferred memory solution for mobile devices like handsets and tablets. NAND, in the form of raw NAND or as Embedded Multimedia Card (eMMC), is now in in fact the standard component in all smartphones as well as some lower-end handsets known as feature phones. NOR is still used mainly for boot code execution as well as a storage medium in entry-level handsets. But the cost of NOR escalates on a per-bit basis, making it not as cost-effective as NAND especially in memory-dense smartphones, with NAND also more ideally suited for data storage and transfer.
Even within the NOR market, cannibalization is occurring among two warring segments, with serial peripheral interface (SPI) NOR grabbing share away from parallel NOR given the former's relative simplicity of design and low manufacturing cost.
In the wireless space, for instance, it is a foregone conclusion that SPI NOR will outsell its older cousin. This year will be the last time that parallel NOR maintains a revenue advantage over SPI NOR: the tables get turned next year as parallel NOR revenue drops almost by half, in contrast to the nearly 20 percent growth of SPI NOR revenue. Parallel NOR's remarkable run in the wireless segment ends in 2015 when revenue falls to zero, with the product effectively extinct by then in mobile devices. Parallel NOR remains a critical part of device functionality and performance in high-value industrial, medical, networking and military applications.
With SPI NOR in ascendance in the mobile segment, at least three suppliers have translated their success in other consumer applications to greater market share in the overall NOR space. The three companies-GigaDevice of China, and both Taiwanese-based Macronix International and Winbond Electronics-last year accounted for more than 80 percent of all SPI NOR units being shipped, and their outstanding performance in SPI NOR gave the three upstarts a combined 28.5 percent share of overall NOR revenue by the end of the fourth quarter last year, compared to approximately 11 percent share in 2009. Back then, Macronix and Winbond were dwarfed by the likes of U.S.-based Spansion and Micron Technology, and GigaDevice was just starting out as a NOR supplier.
SPI NOR will prove especially attractive moving forward for low-end handsets, which are extremely cost-sensitive and are always looking to reduce their bill-of-materials cost. SPI NOR in the near term could also penetrate second-tier feature phones, already under siege from competing solutions such as low-end NAND and Phase-Change Memory-yet another memory type with the potential to displace NOR in NOR-based applications.
While most application market segments are now mature in terms of NOR penetration, automotive remains a category that will exhibit considerable growth. NOR flash content will increase dramatically as intelligence in automobiles proliferate, exemplified in self-monitoring as well as safety and security systems.
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