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© fouquin-christophe-dreamstime.com Components | March 06, 2013

Cloudy days for NAND

Growth in the average amount of NAND flash memory in each smartphone and tablet shipped is slowing this year, as the rising availability of cloud storage and streaming services reduces the need for physical storage in mobile devices.
Memory capacity per cellphone so far has declined to 12.8 gigabytes (GB) on average in the first half of this year, compared to 13.2 GB the same time in 2012, according to a sampling of handsets and tablets studied by the IHS iSuppli Teardown Analysis Service. Such a decline comes in stark contrast to the nearly threefold increase that took place between the first half of 2011 and 2012, when flash memory in phones surged from 4.6 GB to 13.2 GB.

Tablet teardowns tell a similar story of dwindling memory density. From the first half of 2011 to the same time one year later, flash memory loading in tablets dipped 25 percent from 32.1 GB to 24.0 GB on average. The fall during the first half of this year is even greater, down 42 percent as tablet memory skids to 14.0 GB, as shown in the attached figure.

“The increasing prevalence of cloud and streaming services has reduced the requirement for large amounts of NAND flash in smartphones and tablets,” said Ryan Chien, analyst for memory and storage at IHS. “Mobile device brands increasingly are offering their own application ecosystems and online storage benefits that perform the same functions as onboard NAND flash. With mobile platforms a leading growth driver for the NAND industry, this trend represents a major cause of concern for flash memory makers.”

NAND’s challenge in smartphones and tablets

The prevalence of smartphones has had the effect of driving up the total amount of NAND flash memory being used in cellphones. However, growth in memory usage overall is flattening.

For instance, the most recent iterations of two of the best-selling smartphones in the industry, the Apple iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S III, have the same storage options as their predecessors. This comes in stark contrast to the past, when a new model from either maker would offer a discernible bump up in NAND flash density options.

For tablets, the high densities that were the standard in tablet models of previous years have been overshadowed by lower-cost tablets with lighter NAND loading. Many consumers appear to find their experience of using smaller-sized tablets undiminished compared to using larger models, which has emboldened tablet makers such as Google and Amazon to release smaller form factors such as 7- to 9-inch tablets. The move has exacted a toll on the NAND industry, because the smaller-sized tablets in the teardowns average just 50 percent of the flash loading of their larger 10-inch counterparts.

Present dense

Even the so-called sweet spot for NAND density has grown slowly for large and small tablets alike. The preferred memory configuration for 10-inch tablets is between 16 and 32 GB. For the 7-inch segment, the sweet spot is likewise dominated by 16-GB products, with 8-GB units also popular.

Memory cards get played out

The advantages of the cloud have also diminished consumer usage of the microSD memory card—another major source of revenue for NAND flash makers. A removable device that can be plugged into phones at will, the microSD card still plays a big role in providing additional storage for entry-level smartphones as well as lower-end handsets known as feature phones. However, the detachable cards can no longer be used in many high-end cellphones, which instead have opted for embedded storage, doing away with any sort of card slot on the phone.

Compounding difficulties, the embedded storage in handsets has not increased enough to compensate for the drop off in slot attach rates. As a result, local storage in smartphone teardowns appears to have leveled off at 16 GB, a worrisome sign for NAND flash suppliers.

Greener pastures for NAND suppliers

Overall, the slowdown in NAND loading for handsets and tablets is driving manufacturers to seek greener pastures elsewhere. Idaho-based Micron Technology and SanDisk of California, for instance, are aggressively exploring NAND flash options in the solid state drive market—a faster-growing segment with more opportunities to add value. Both are nearing the goal of deriving 10 percent of their revenue attained from SSDs, with plans to expand further.

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