Licensing--that's the rub
"The strategy is to develop the innovations, announce them and show their value to the industry [as] a way to improve industry main memory and fit in standard industry cost structures," said Michael Ching, director of strategic development at Rambus. "We are not proposing an entirely new architecture," he added.
Rambus, working with Intel, did proposed a new architecture with its Rambus DRAMs introduced as a follow on to PC-133 memories several years ago. Memory makers pushed back on the approach which would have required them to pay Rambus royalties.
Rambus then sought royalties on what it claims were its technologies used in synchronous and double data rate DRAMs. Memory makers claimed Rambus failed to disclose its technologies during JEDEC meetings where the standards were set. A tangle of court case ensued, many of which are still ongoing today.
"Having our technologies adopted has never been a problem," said Sharon Holt, vice president of licensing and marketing at Rambus. "Our technologies have been used whether people have a license or not—that's the rub," she said.
The company has outstanding court cases with Samsung, Hynix and Micron. But "we have a track record of working with people even when litigation is going on," she added.
Indeed, Rambus has already started talks on its main memory initiative with chip set and DRAM makers as well as OEMs, said Herb Gephardt, vice president of strategic development at Rambus. "We're letting the industry know about our innovations at a time when the [DDR4] spec is being developed," he said.
JEDEC declined to comment on the status of the DDR4 standard. Intel also declined to discuss any talks on the interface which it will presumably use in its next-generation 32nm processor architecture called Sandy Bridge. The first members of that family are expected to ship in 2011. For its part, Samsung would only say it is "actively participating" in work on DDR4 and future memory technologies.
The DDR4 work comes at a time when NAND flash technologies such as Spansion's EcoRAM and new products from startup Schooner are encroaching on traditional DRAM applications, said Bob Merritt, principal analyst with Convergent Semiconductors (Monarch Beach, Calif.).
"DDR4 may take awhile to get defined because we will have to get a better idea of what the performance characteristics will be in the remaining apps for DRAMs," Merritt said. Defining a DRAM architecture "is just more complex this time," he added.
In addition, "a lot of road maps and plans are being pushed out due to the downturn," said Holt of Rambus. "It's possible there's been a slowdown in the normal cadence of things," she added.
Being part of the new spec is significant for Rambus which gets the lion's share of its revenues from licensing DRAM technologies. The company reported a net loss for the first three months of 2009 as well as for calendar 2008 and made a 21 percent cut of staff in August.