What: Shares of Micron Technology (NASDAQ:MU) closed Tuesday up 9% after jumping as much as 10.8% earlier in the day. In a joint press conference with fellow semiconductor titan and longtime business partner Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), the embattled memory chip manufacturer unveiled a brand-new long-term storage technology under the 3D Xpoint brand, which reportedly runs 1,000 times faster than today's industry-standard NAND flash memory chips and takes up one-tenth the physical space. The same news sparked a boost of as much as 2.9% to Intel's stock.
So what: The two companies claim to have the first truly new persistent memory technology since NAND flash hit the scene in 1989. The potential benefits match the seemingly eons-long pause between breakthroughs. Micron and Intel are stacking multiple layers of memory chip materials on top of each other, and the whole stack is created without the need to direct data traffic with slow transistors. Slated to sample later this year "with select customers," this isn't some pie-in-the-sky invention in search of a commercial use -- we should expect actual products hitting store shelves within the next few quarters. The Intel Micron joint venture is already producing wafers of these chips for testing purposes.
Now what: Micron and Intel are planning to ship chips to multiple device-building partners, but they're also developing their own storage devices based on 3D Xpoint technologies. With these chips, you might see smartphones soon matching the long-term storage of today's desktops and laptops. Solid-state drives for larger machines will also become exponentially larger, and probably more cost-competitive with large but slow magnetic disk drives.
It remains to be seen whether the companies are hoping to license out this new technology as a new industry standard or simply keep this solution close to the vest, under heavy patent protection. The first option should quickly lead to low end-user prices as various manufacturers duke it out with the standard pricing tools of the trade. Economies of scale would create a large market in short order. The second choice would protect Intel's and Micron's profit margins on 3D Xpoint products, but would also slow down market adoption.
Will the inventors go with high volume but low margins, or the other way around? Beats me. As a consumer, I'd certainly prefer the instant gratification of seeing these chips going mainstream and inexpensive very quickly. As a shareholder in both of these companies, I'll admit that the prospect of premium pricing looks delicious. That's especially true for Micron, which is starting down the barrel of yet another memory-chip price war right now.
A few rounds of price skimming might be in order before turning this advance loose on the broader memory market.