To judge by some of the headlines, the computer world seems about ready to be turned upside-down by the more widespread use of the memory you're used to stuffing in your cell phone or camera.

NAND flash is familiar to us all, but it's only now poised to make the big leap from gadgets to computers, and where it lands is still entirely up for grabs.

The end goal of most of the current NAND-related projects is to try to reduce power consumption, especially in laptops, by replacing some or all of a hard disk drive's function with NAND flash. By dropping frequently used bits of operating system into flash, which requires little power and operates more quickly than a hard drive, the hope is that laptop juice will last longer and performance will increase. Now, according to some data I've seen, the performance increases from reducing hard drive use are not nearly so great as the flash touters would have us believe, but let's not let that get in the way of a good story, and a good way to persuade everyone to buy yet another laptop next year.

Everyone's got a finger in this pie. As I've discussed in the past, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) has been working on a way to integrate flash memory directly into a motherboard, coupling it with a laptop project called Santa Rosa. This is, I believe, a primary reason it decided to couple with Micron (NYSE:MU) to start making flash memory of its own.

As you remember, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) provided the original cash influx to kick-start that relationship, and at the time, I figured it would not be long before Apple began incorporating flash into its computer offerings, a line of speculation that's beginning to become more popular in the tech blogs out there.

Meanwhile, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has put its stamp of approval on a couple of ways to use flash with its upcoming Vista operating system. ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive will cache chunks of the operating system into flash memory provided by the end user, either via a thumb drive in a USB port, or by the hard drive manufacturers, who sandwich a layer of flash onto their existing disk drives into what the industry now calls hybrid hard drives. For now, hybrids are being offered by just Seagate (NYSE:STX) and Samsung -- which also makes a hard drive replacement built entirely from flash.

Word to the wise -- recent widespread reports that Vista would require laptop makers such as Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) to use hybrid hard drives look to be based on a misinterpretation of some technical requirements designed to set minimum standards for makers that choose to incorporate hybrids.

To get back to the what's-in-it-for-me angle, despite the angry letters I've gotten from rabid SanDisk (NASDAQ:SNDK) shareholders, I still say it's too soon to see how this will all shake out for investors. SanDisk doesn't currently offer products in this space -- aside from thumb drives that could be used for ReadyBoost, and although it could conceivably see a boost in licensing revenue, that would happen only in the event that these drives are made from the MLC flash that's SanDisk's specialty. Industry experts I've communicated with tell me that the first crops of such devices are likely to be based on the more robust SLC flash that comes (mostly) from Samsung. So, no soup for SanDisk, at least not right away.

None of this is to suggest that you shouldn't invest in the flash space. I still hold shares of SanDisk because I believe that the uses for NAND, including the cheaper MLC variety, will ramp up and make the stock a winner for some time to come. But the story isn't as simple as the headlines might suggest. Don't fall for the tale of the next big thing until you know what's next for the thing, and who's big in the space.

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Seth Jayson often wonders how many tech investors can tell a memory chip from a potato chip. At the time of publication, he had shares of SanDisk and Microsoft but no positions in any other company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.