With both Motorola and IBM firmly lined up behind a single contender, the five-year search for a "universal RAM" technology offering a combination of non-volatility and high-speed random access appears to be all but over.
According to Motorola, samples of the new magnetoresistive random access memory, or MRAM, chips will be distributed to developers by the end of 2003, and cell phones and PDAs incorporating MRAM should be on sale by mid-2004.
Though IBM had previously announced plans to release its MRAM chips in 2005, Elke Eckstein, new CEO of Altis Semiconductor, a joint venture of IBM and Infineon Technologies charged with developing MRAM, indicated that a vastly accelerated timetable is being implemented.
Altis' goal, Eckstein said, is to "be the first company to bring MRAM to market."
Unlike conventional high-speed memory devices, MRAM uses magnetism instead of electrical charges to store data -- making it, in a sense, a back-to-the-future technology based on the same laws of physics that enabled the creation of audio and videotape recorders as well as hard drives.
MRAM wafers are made up of individual cells comprising two microscopic magnetic layers separated by an insulating layer. Like all magnetic substances, each of those two layers can be polarized in the same direction or opposite directions, corresponding to the binary bits 1 and 0.
"Consumer benefits could include faster startup times for computers, PDAs and cell phones, reduced data loss, shorter waits for data to load and increased battery run time," said Brian Way, CEO of memory supplier 4 All Memory.
Way noted that MRAM technology allows numerous functions to be integrated onto one chip for reduced product size and, hopefully, more cost-efficient memory solutions.
"MRAM is up to six times faster than today's static RAM," said IBM spokesman Richard Butner. "It also has the potential to be extremely dense, packing more information into a smaller space."
"Researchers have been trying for years to find a 'universal' RAM replacement, a device that is non-volatile, inexpensive, fast and low-power," Way said. "DRAM (dynamic RAM), flash and SRAM (static RAM) all have one or two of these characteristics, but MRAM appears to offer the best hope of an overall solution."
Among other things, MRAM is designed to eliminate several of the most infuriating artifacts of the computer age: the interminable wait for devices to boot up and power down, and those irritating operating system messages about "loading" and "saving your settings."
"Currently computers need to load information into local memory from the hard disk when the power is turned on, and that data transfer can't even start until after the hard drive has spun up to speed," Way said. "Whenever you shut down, data has to flow back in the other direction from the volatile memory to the hard drive.
"MRAM is designed to allow programs and data to remain in the local memory and may even, someday, allow us to simply reach out and touch an on/off button to turn off Windows in lieu of going through a ritualized shut-down procedure."
Way also noted MRAM's faster startup will not only increase productivity in the corporate computing environment, but may also result in lower energy costs and longer system life cycles among consumers.
"How many people keep their computer on 24 hours a day simply because they can't stand to sit around for four or five minutes waiting for it to boot up?" he asked. "I don't think anyone has researched that particular issue, but I'll bet there are a lot of them.
"Once MRAM-empowered systems arrive in force, shutting down the computer between work sessions will be a much more attractive option."