SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With another delay of a key Intel Corp. chip set for Direct Rambus DRAMs in PCs, Rambus systems have missed the window for the Christmas selling season, according to industry analysts. On Monday, Intel was set to launch its 820 Camino chip set for Rambus DRAMs but problems with signal integrity in memory slots emerged a week ago (see Sept. 24 story).
The delay is potentially costing PC makers tens of millions of dollars in sales. It is also possibly hobbling the upcoming launch of Intel's next version of the Pentium III and it has caused at least one memory maker to halt production of Rambus DRAMs.
"There will be no more wafer starts for RDRAM until we can better understand how long it will take to resolve the Camino situation," said Avo Kanadjian, vice president for memory marketing for Samsung Semiconductor Inc., the San Jose-based subsidiary of the South Korean memory giant. "Any capacity that can be freed up will be reassigned to 128-Mbit or 256-Mbit SDRAM products. We will require some convincing before we restart any RDRAM production."
RDRAM and SDRAM technologies use entirely different mask sets, and shifting back and forth is no small task, although Samsung's Fab 9 was designed specifically to manufacture either type of memory. Kanadjian said the company's current RDRAM inventory and chips in process now total about 100,000 Rambus chips.
If Intel cannot identify the bugs in its chip set soon, Kanadjian said the 100,000 devices should be enough to supply PC OEMs through the end of the year. And by shifting to SDRAM, he said Samsung could pump an additional million SDRAM chips into the channel by year's end. The delay could also help give double-data-rate (DDR) synchronous DRAMs a stronger chance at becoming a mainstream alternative for high-end PCs sold next year, say industry observers.
With SDRAM prices on the rise, the glitch could be an opportunity for memory companies to adjust their mix and increase their revenue in the year's final quarter. Other memory vendors are reacting to the same issues, and Hitachi Ltd. said it they will hold off on ramping RDRAM production pending more solid information about Camino's launch.
PC manufacturers could face even bigger problems since they must also delay the introduction of RDRAM-based systems. "The PC companies are about to go into their biggest season without any whizzy systems to put on the shelves," said Sherry Garber, memory analyst for Semico Research Corp. in Phoenix. "Instead, they have nothing."
One analyst estimated that if OEMs have to scrap their existing Rambus motherboards it could cost them $10 million based on an estimated 100,000 boards. But another source said as many as 500,000 Rambus boards may have already been manufactured based on orders of key components.
"You probably won't get a Rambus computer in your stocking this Christmas," said Ron Bechtold, vice president of sales and marketing for Hitachi Semiconductor (America) Inc. in San Jose. He agreed that the delays now make it likely that Rambus will miss the critical holiday window.
In Round Rock, Tex., a spokesman for Dell Computer Corp. confirmed that the PC company will not produce or ship any boxes with RDRAM until Intel can correct the Camino bugs.
At this point, Dell and other PC vendors are waiting for Intel to say whether potential workarounds exist. In the meantime, those designs sit unused. "It's always a problem when you plan to be selling something, and it is delayed," the spokesman said. Unlike other vendors, Dell's build-to-order model means they have not yet begun producing the boxes for shipment and will continue to produce SDRAM-based machines only.
If the PC companies have to scrap their RDRAM-motherboards, it will be several months before the technology can debut, said Peter Glaskowsky, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources in Sunnyvale, Calif. And all of that is contingent on Intel's finding the cause of the problem.
Meanwhile, Intel continues to work on identifying the cause of the errors, but at present there is no new launch date, according to a company spokesman in Santa Clara. "We will introduce the Camino when it is ready for high-volume production" he added.
Memory analyst Jim Handy at Dataquest in San Jose still expects to see Rambus emerge in the long run as the market's dominant DRAM format.
"Intel is pushing the market in that direction, and that doesn't leave a lot of choices for the rest of the industry," Handy said. "Alternative memory, such as DDR, would need a lot more time than they will get from this delay to really become established. Rambus has soundly missed the Christmas market, but they will probably ramp next year."