SAN JOSE -- The battle-hardened DRAM industry has assumed an air of d??tente in recent weeks as suppliers joined hands to fend off two intellectual-property disputes that threatened to wrest the market's future course from their control.
Following a patent-infringement suit filed earlier this month against Hitachi Ltd. by IP-house Rambus Inc., several memory-chip makers have begun to rally behind the scenes in support of their fellow vendor. And a second issue that had jeopardized the formation of the industry's new Advanced DRAM Technology alliance likewise prompted DRAM suppliers to circle the wagons, according to sources.
Both IP battles peppered corridor talk at the Platform 2000 Conference in San Jose this week without surfacing at any of the myriad technical sessions. But senior DRAM-industry executives attending the conference said the issues have united the oft-contentious memory industry as never before.
Casting a pall over a broad cross section of the semiconductor marketplace, Rambus' suit, filed earlier this month in Delaware, charges Hitachi with misappropriating patents intended for the design of Direct Rambus DRAM chips by applying the technology to a variety of SDRAM interfaces. Citing Hitachi's refusal to negotiate a separate license, Rambus is seeking punitive damages and an injunction against virtually all of Hitachi's DRAM products as well as its SDRAM-enabled SH microprocessors.
But it's Rambus' claim that the entire DRAM industry is subject to the same restrictions that has stood the market on its ear. Sherry Garber, an analyst at Phoenix-based Semico Research Corp., said major DRAM companies have quietly offered their help to Hitachi-specifically by sharing data that purportedly proves the synchronous technology was developed long before Rambus filed its patent claims in 1990.
"All the memory firms see the Rambus suit against Hitachi as a threat to them," Garber said. "They want to stop the Rambus patent action before it goes any further."
Garber added that if Rambus' patent claims hold up, the synchronous circuitry found in everything from mainstream DRAM, SRAM, flash memory, and even many microprocessors could be affected. "Potentially, it could be devastating for the industry," she said.
Sources here confirmed that a number of DRAM suppliers have stepped forward to offer Hitachi documentation for its defense. One supplier went as far as to say that the synchronous technique predates Rambus by a considerable margin-as far back as the advent of FIFO memories.
For their part, Hitachi executives here referred questions to its Tokyo headquarters, where a spokesman said the matter is under review.
Other leading DRAM executives this week said they have been contacted informally by Rambus regarding its patent claims. While they did not wish to be named, a number of chip suppliers said the Mountain View, Calif., company has yet to assert the same SDRAM licensing demands it has made of Hitachi.
As Rambus wages its legal battle, several DRAM executives were quietly celebrating the outcome of an earlier dispute that threatened the recently created Advanced DRAM Technology alliance. The effort, which is being led by Intel Corp., is tasked with developing a new packet-based DRAM architecture for the volume-PC market by 2003.
According to an arrangement agreed to by five of the group's six members-Hyundai MicroElectronics, Infineon Technologies, Micron Technology, NEC, and Samsung Electronics-the project was to be conducted on a royalty-free basis, with all of the intellectual property shared in the process remaining with the alliance.
However, while Intel agreed to the royalty-free technology exchange, sources said it insisted on taking back its intellectual property if it decided to leave the alliance.
None of the member companies would comment publicly. However, sources said that Intel relented following negotiations during which the DRAM suppliers rejected the microprocessor giant's proposal.
The alliance's charter now states that if any member exits the group, the technology used in developing a new DRAM chip will remain accessible to the other partners.