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Spansion banks its future on memory chips for 3D mobile game devices

Memory chip maker Spansion may not be a sexy company, but the sexy devices that consumers lust after wouldn’t be possible without it. A free fall in prices and high debt drove the company into bankruptcy during the recession, but it reemerged from bankruptcy earlier this year in a market recovery. Now its betting its future on memory chips designed specifically for certain kinds of demanding applications.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company is introducing its first 2-gigabyte NOR flash memory chips today, targeting them at storage for high-quality 3D graphics applications. That includes 3D games, learning devices, and automotive entertainment systems and car instrumentation systems.

Mobile apps are moving from primitive two-dimensional graphics to real-time 3D games running on devices such as the iPhone. That means that the flash memory storage of these devices is going up. On top of that, the flash memory performance has to be better as well. The chips have to fetch data from memory or store it more quickly in order to keep up with applications that require large amounts of data, such as video or games. Spansion says the read performance (speed at fetching data) on its chips is 2.5 times as fast as rival chips.

Spansion’s high-density NOR flash memory chips, known as the 2Gb Spansion GL-S, uses MirrorBit charge-trapping technology to store more data in a given space than typical flash memory chips.

As game devices switch to richer media and better 3D, they need higher performance and more memory capacity, said Rob Enderle, an analyst for the Enderle Group, an analysis firm in San Jose, Calif.

Spansion’s technology is suited for handheld consumer games, game cartridges, handheld learning devices, arcade game machines, information kiosks, and automotive electronics, such as car navigation devices. On the company’s recent conference call, Spansion chief executive John Kispert said the company had signed 10 new customers in video entertainment and 20 new set-top box customers. If I had to take a guess, I’d bet that Sony would use this kind of memory chip in its rumored upcoming PlayStation Portable 2 handheld game player. Over time, Spansion will also launch a four-gigabit chip.

Strategically, Spansion is focused on embedded and targeted wireless applications for its chips. By targeting this segment, it’s clear the company is trying to grab the high-end customers of the market with the highest-quality product. But that doesn’t change the fact that flash memory is a commodity business, subject to the whims of the business cycle. Things are good for now, as the industry has been in recovery all year. But as Spansion learned when it went into bankruptcy, the memory chip business is a harsh one.

Spansion is a publicly traded company that was started as a joint venture of Advanced Micro Devices and Fujitsu in 1993. AMD took control of the company and then spun it out as an independent entity. Spansion went public in 2005. It filed for bankruptcy in the spring of 2009 and emerged in May, 2010. The company began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in June. In its most recent third fiscal quarter ended Sept. 26, the company reported non-GAAP net income of $38.7 million on revenues of $319.7 million. A year earlier, it reported net income of $20.6 million on revenue of $327.6 million.

Rivals include Micron, Samsung and Macronix.


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