October 2000 Industry Update

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DRAM

The DRAM market has been in a great deal of turmoil during the past year. Prices have gone up and down dramatically, and lawsuits have become standard operating procedure, and it seems much of this activity can be attributed to the actions of Rambus, Inc.

Early this year, Rambus sued Hitachi, who then countersued. Eventually, Hitachi settled the issue by signing a license agreement, however this was promptly followed by a set of lawsuits against Rambus filed by both Micron and Hyundai. Rambus then countersued both of these companies in Europe, and soon in the U.S. In addition, Infineon has joined the fray suing and being sued by Rambus. It also appears that Rambus has approached manufacturers of embedded processors for licensing of their embedded DRAM controllers, which Rambus claims to own patents for.

The Micron and Hyundai charges claim that Rambus knowingly withheld information from manufacturers regarding pending patents, while at the same time working with them to develop industry standards. In addition, they are claiming anti-competitive practices. Most recently, Infineon is claiming patent violations against Rambus. According to this report, Infineon claims to own several patents used in the DRDRAM designs, which were illegally licensed to third parties by Rambus.

In another interesting development, U.S. tariffs on Hyundai products were lifted on Oct. 1, and it appears that Micron was instrumental in this event with the intent to encourage a united front against Rambus, according to some sources close to these companies.

September also witnessed the official announcement of the new NEC-Hitachi joint venture, which will operate under the name of Elpida Memory Inc. All DRAM operations will be transferred to this new company, with the exception of the actual manufacturing of chips. NEC and Hitachi will act as foundries for Elpida, and will each own 50% of the company, which means that neither one can be considered the parent company.

As a result, existing Rambus licenses signed by Hitach and NEC will not apply to Elpida. In addition, as foundries, it appears that neither company will be required to pay royalties on DRAM products manufactured for Elpida. Elpida will need to license whatever technologies they plan on using for their products, and have indicated that they are discussing the issue with Rambus.

DRDRAM

DRDRAM has definitely fallen out of favor with most manufacturers. Though Samsung and NEC have been manufacturing chips for some time, no other manufacturers have done so. In addition, with all of NECs DRAM operations transferring to Elpida, it appears uncertain whether they will continue to manufacture DRDRAM at all. Elpida has made some comments regarding this issue, and appear to be leaning towards SDR and DDR DRAM for the bulk of their product line.

Though Intel will support DRDRAM exclusively on their upcoming i850 chipset, there are reports that they are working on a DDR capable chipset. In addition, VIA will be manufacturing P4 chipsets that will use both SDR and DDR SDRAM, but not DRDRAM.

Most motherboard manufacturers I’ve spoken with seem to believe that DRDRAM will occupy a niche, at best, catering only to the workstation market. Even at that, they believe DDR will eventually drive out DRDRAM altogether. By all accounts, DRDRAM is a very complicated technology, which motherboard manufacturers do not particularly care for.

DDR

Though there have been some reports of timing issues, DDR SDRAM is poised to dominate the PC memory market for the forseeable future. At least one motherboard manufacturer plans on having their entire product line support DDR by mid-year, and most are absolutely certain that DDR will be the next memory standard. Most, if not all, motherboard makers will have DDR capable products showing at this years Comdex show, however the major marketing effort will not occur until Q1 next year.

Several variations of DDR have been proposed to JEDEC, including DDR VCSDRAM (from NEC) and DDR eSDRAM (from Ramtron). It is possible that there will be some production and marketing of these products, though pricing and availability will likely be a factor in their acceptance.

While the most ardent proponents of DDR within the industry have been claiming products are close to availability since mid-year, nothing has actually been released yet. Oddly, this does not seem to have dampened the enthusiasm for the technology, apparently because of the poor reputation earned by DRDRAM, and as a backlash against the perceived unethical actions of Rambus, Inc.

Though DDR SDRAM is simpler to implement for motherboard makers than DRDRAM, there is an issue of scalability. DDR is already close to running at maximum speed, so designers are hard at work trying to define the next generation technology. DDR-II is generally considered the best candidate, which reportedly includes some technology developed for SLDRAM. In the meantime, there is some speculation that if more time is needed, manufacturers could try to implement a Quad Data Rate product as an interim solution for another interim solution…


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