Friday, August 05, 2011

How was flash memory invented?

Fujio Masuoka, a former is the inventor of flash memory, the data storage chip used worldwide in mobile phones, digital cameras, and MP3 players. The August 1st evening issue of Asahi Shinbun (a Japanese newspaper) features his interview in which he reveals how he invented flash memory.

When he joined Toshiba, he first worked at the research and development department. He invented a high-performance memory chip, but it didn't sell at all. He then asked for the transfer to the sales and marketing department in order to sell the chip on his own.

He flied to the United States and visited many computer companies. But he failed and got transferred back to the R&D department within a year.

But this experience let him learn one thing. American companies repeatedly told him, "We don't need a high-performance chip. We just need the minimum level of quality. Don't you have a chip that's much cheaper?"

This led him to come up with an idea to design a chip that "must be erased in fairly large blocks before these can be rewritten with new data" (from Wikipedia on flash memory), which is clearly less functional but reduces the cost of production by more than 75 percent.

What I find interesting about this episode is that it was Americans' (or Westerners' in general, I would say, in comparison to Japanese) mentality that allowed him to invent flash memory. Japanese people tend to pursue the best quality products while Westerners (Americans in particular, I guess) are often satisfied with something that is just functional enough for daily use. If he sticks to this Japanese mentality, he wouldn't have been able to invent flash memory.

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