News Flash? Yeah, Right.

The headlines lately have been proclaiming the white-hot popularity of flash memory. Today's bit of hyperbole was Samsung's prediction of a "flash rush," meant to evoke the gold rushes we all associate with charming stereotypes of grizzled prospector types. Needless to say, Samsung, which shares the flash gorilla position with rival Toshiba, has a lot to gain by cheering a flash rush (and hyping the 16- and 32-gigabyte flash "drives" to come).

This is what passes for news?

A mere glance at consumer electronics would have made this trend clear to anyone. Digital cameras, still very hot sellers, all come with some kind of flash memory, from the older CompactFlash to proprietary formats like Sony's (NYSE: SNE  ) Memory Stick. But flash is no longer just for smaller-capacity devices.

The sticking point used to be price. Hard drives are cheaper than flash, but flash is more resilient and uses less energy, so it's preferable for music players and other devices. Just last week, Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) Steve Jobs broke the price/device barrier by introducing the flash-powered iPod nano, which contains four gigs of Samsung memory.

Apple was able to keep the price in range of the original iPod mini by reportedly procuring its flash memory at a hefty discount to what others are expected to shell out. Subsequent reports out of Korea suggest that Apple has now taken up so much of Samsung's output that it's caused a bit of a NAND shortage, meaning that the phenomenon of continuing, relatively predictable price drops may be giving way to something more complex. It may be that in creating such a shortage, Apple simultaneously cratered the price of the flash memory it's buying from Samsung while increasing the cost for others.

The same day, we officially saw the release of the Tunes-playing Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) music phone, the ROKR. Like other multimedia phones, it has a slot for flash memory, and it happens to be bundled with a fingernail-sized half-gig flash card provided by SanDisk (Nasdaq: SNDK  ) .

Investors looking to cash in on the growing demand for flash memory would do best to look past Samsung and Toshiba, the giant conglomerates making the raw memory. Instead, they should seek opportunities from flash-systems provider M-Systems (Nasdaq: FLSH  ) or end-product producers like SanDisk or even loss-booking rival LexarMedia (Nasdaq: LEXR  ) . Given its record of profitability and leading market position, SanDisk has long looked like the clear favorite to me in the latter space, though its recent run has taken it outside the realm of cheap.

For related Foolishness:

Seth Jayson is always hankering for more flash storage for his digital photos. At the time of publication, he had shares of SanDisk, but no position in any other firm mentioned here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.


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