When five companies band together to push a new standard for digital rights managment it begs questions about whose flash memories will get designed into equipment.
It was announced a few days ago that five major companies have got together to push a next-generation standard for digital rights protection on SD cards and "embedded flash" memory. The work takes place under the tentative title of "Next Generation Secure Memory Initiative" and involves Panasonic, Samsung, SanDisk, Sony and Toshiba.
Given that four of the five companies have significant interests in consumer equipment it would seem that embedded in this context means stand-alone flash memories inside electronic equipment such as tablet computers.
The joint press statement was short on the benefits of the standard except to say that a revamped standard is necessary to protect high definition video streams and Blu-ray movies when copied to and playing from flash memory. It was even shorter on technical detail but gave the impression that much of the collaborative work has been done and will involve the use of identification technology applied to flash memory die.
In this case it is notable that Samsung, Toshiba and SanDisk are three of the leading NAND flash memory producers. Samsung and Toshiba were responsible for 70 percent of branded NAND flash memory chip sales in the third quarter of 2011, according to DRAMexchange.
The other significant vendors Hynix Semiconductor, Micron Technology Inc. and Intel Corp. were not part of the announcement.
But suppose an ability to play HD and Blu-ray streams in tablet computers and smartphones was totally dependent on a special design of NAND flash memory chip made by Toshiba and Samsung but not by Hynix or Micron?
Of course the true impact of this standard will not be known until more detail is revealed. The security may be handled in a flash memory controller IC that can pick up unique ID data from the flash memory ICs without requiring specialized design features. And usually any patents involved in market-setting standards are made available to all on reasonable and non-disriminatory terms. Nonetheless a jump-start on a standard can leave the competition scrambling and at a disadvantage for months or even years.
Finally the elephant not in the in the room is Apple, the biggest buyer of NAND flash memory. Apple is not the sort of company to be dictated to in terms of who can or cannot supply flash memory and in term of what standards will or will not apply when it comes to playing video; note its stand out position against Adobe flash.
Nonetheless the promulgation of any standard always prompts the question as to whether the standard also serves to raise, or lower, the barriers to competition from other players.
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