The schedules may help back mounting beliefs that the iPhone 5 will 64GB iPhone 4 prototype appeared last month that hinted Apple was exploring the idea as early as last year. Just on Tuesday, a possible if disputed iPod touch with 128GB of storage also appeared and hinted at an upgrade for the MP3 player as well. Both the iPhone and the iPod have been stuck at 32GB and 64GB of storage respectively since 2009 and are increasingly overdue for additional space.
Toshiba has revised its flash memory production lines again to keep pace with the likes of Intel, Micron and Samsung. Higher densities and smaller form factors seemed to indicate they are gearing up for a big production run of the highest capacity memory modules they can make. It’s looking like a new iPhone might be the candidate to receive newer multi-layer single chip 64GB Flash memory modules this year.
A note of caution in this arms race of ever smaller feature sizes on the flash memory modules, the smaller you go the less memory read/write cycles you get. I’m becoming aware that each new generation of flash memory production has lost an amount of robustness. This problem has been camouflaged maybe even handled outright by the increase in over-provisioning of chips on a given size Solid State Disk (sometimes as low as 17% more chips than that which is typically used when the drive is full). Through careful statistical modeling and use of algorithms, an ideal shuffling of the deck of available flash memory chips allows the load to be spread out. No single chip fails as it’s workload is shifted continuously to insure it doesn’t receive anywhere near the maximum number of reliable read write cycles. Similarly, attempts to ‘recover’ data from failing memory cells within a chip module are also making up for these problems. Last but not least outright error-correcting hardware has been implemented on chip to insure everything just works from the beginning of the life of the Solid State Disk (SSD) to the finals days of its useful life.
We may not see the SSD eclipse the venerable kind off high density storage, the Hard Disk Drive (HDD). Given the point of diminishing return provided by Moore’s Law (scaling down increases density, increases speed, lowers costs), Flash may never get down to the level of density we enjoy in a typical consumer brand HDD (2TBytes). We may have to settle for other schemes that get us to that target through other means. Which brings me to my favorite product of the moment, the PCIe based SSD. Which is nothing more than a big circuit board with a bunch of SSD’s tied together in a disk array with a big fat memory controller/error-correction controller sitting on it. In terms of speeds using the PCI Express bus, there are current products that beat single SATA 6 SSDs by a factor of two. And given the requirements of PCI, the form factor of any given module could be several times bigger and two generations older to reach the desired 2Terbyte storage of a typical SATA Hard Drive of today. Which to me sounds like a great deal if we could also see drops in price and increases in reliability by using older previous generation products and technology.
But the mobile market is hard to please, as they are driving most decisions when it comes to what kind of Flash memory modules get ordered en masse. No doubt Apple, Samsung and anyone in consumer electronics will advise manufacturers to consistently shrink their chip sizes to increase density and keep prices up on final shipping product. I don’t know how efficiently an iPhone or iPad use the available memory say on a 64GByte iTouch let’s say. Most of that goes into storing the music, TV shows, and Apps people want to have readily available while passing time. The beauty of that design is it rewards consumption by providing more capacity and raising marginal profit at the same time. This engine of consumer electronics design doesn’t look likely to end in spite of the physical limitations of shrinking down Flash memory chips. But there will be a day of reckoning soon, not unlike when Intel hit the wall at 4Ghz serial processors and had to go multi-core to keep it’s marginal revenue flowing. It’s been very lateral progress in terms of processor performance since then. It is more than likely Flash memory chips cannot get any smaller without being really unreliable and defective, thereby sliding into the same lateral incrementalism Intel has adopted. Get ready for the plateau.