'Magnetic memory' chip unveiled
The microchip business is worth $48 billion (£30 billion) a year
A microchip which can store information like a hard drive has been unveiled by US company Freescale.
The chip, called magnetoresistive random-access memory (Mram), maintains data by relying on magnetic properties rather than an electrical charge.
One analyst told the Associated Press news agency that the chip was the most significant development in computer memory for a decade.
Mram chips could find their way into many different electronic devices.
The benefit of Mram chips is that they will hold information after power has been switched off.
Freescale has been producing the four-megabit Mram chips at an Arizona factory for two months to build up levels of stock.
A number of chip makers have been pursuing the technology for a decade or more, including IBM, but Freescale is the first company to offer a chip with practical usage for many of today's electronic devices.
"This is the most significant memory introduction in this decade," said Will Strauss, an analyst with research firm Forward Concepts.
"This is radically new technology. People have been dabbling in this for years, but nobody has been able to make it in volume."
Unlike flash memory, which also can keep data without power, Mram has faster read and write speeds and does not degrade over time.
Ram chips in most electronic devices, such as PCs, lose data when their power is switched off.
Currently flash memory is used in portable devices such as MP3 players and for portable storage in the form of small cards that are used in cameras.
Mram chips could one day be used in PCs to store an operating system, allowing computers to start up faster when switched on.
Bob Merritt, an analyst with Semico Research, said memory chip manufacturers were seeking technology that will be faster, smaller, cheaper and retain data when the power is off.
"The older memory technologies are awkward to work with in a mobile computing environment," Mr Merritt said.
"This is a significant step forward and absolutely critical for moving into the smaller forms that consumers and industry want."
Freescale has been working on the technology for nearly a decade, said Saied Tehrani, who runs the Austin-based company's Mram programme.
He said Freescale already had customers, but he declined to name any.
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