How Richer Content is Reshaping Mobile Design

Low- and mid-phone memory demand is heating up more rapidly than ever, but with 3D NAND, things are looking (and stacking) up.

Editor’s Note: When Intel and Micron together announced the availability of a NAND technology that tripled capacity compared to other solutions, the two firms pointed to “mobile consumer devices” as among the beneficiaries of the storage breakthrough. Flash forward to March of this year, when Micron’s Mike Rayfield, VP and GM of the company’s Mobile Business Unit, shared the Mobile World Live “How Richer Content is Reshaping Mobile Design” webinar stage with Ben Bajarin, Principal Analyst, Global Consumer Tech, Creative Strategies and moderator Steve Costello, Senior Editor, Mobile World Live. Following are selected edited excerpts from the webinar transcript, with organizational text, figures and captions.

Mike Rayfield, Micron

Mike Rayfield, Micron

Mike Rayfield: [In making] observations at Mobile World Congress this year, I [saw] three things:

1. The content for mobile devices is getting a lot richer. Whether it’s driven by the coming 5G pipes being a lot thicker to push a lot more data or whether it’s high resolution content or virtual reality. But, clearly the richness of data has put a huge strain on the mobile handset and what it’s got to be able to do.

2. [IoT] things are hubbed to your smartphone. And what we’re seeing is it’s becoming a much more important device.

3. One or two billion people don’t have a computer, don’t have a phone, and don’t have access to the Internet. There are now devices, full functionality devices that can be acquired by those folks for well under a hundred dollars that are going to allow them to have that first computer, make that first phone call and surf the Internet. Mobile devices, while they’re important to us now, are getting even more important and are going to become important to folks that will own them in the very near future.

Smartphone as Primary Computer

Ben Bajarin, Creative Strategies

Ben Bajarin, Creative Strategies

Ben Bajarin: So much of the component landscape and innovation from smartphones is driving other sectors. If you look back to the 90s and early 2000s era of the PC, you’d see [that PC] components, (SoCs, memory screens), drove other elements of different industries. And now we’re seeing that same thing play out in smartphones’ [components and innovation] driving the IoT. And those same products are moving to cars. Those same products are moving to virtual reality.

The smartphone, for most of the world, is not just their only computer, but even in developed markets it is their primary computer. That has huge implications on how it’s used, on engagement levels, all the way across the board to new opportunities in software and services.

Rayfield: If you think about mobile device design, the things that it cares about are performance, energy efficiency and footprint. Networking and cloud, enterprise, IoT, automotive—all of those things care about those same three things.

Figure 1: The requirements for memory in each of these areas are critical, accelerating and evolving.

Figure 1: The requirements for memory in each of these areas are critical, accelerating and evolving.

The mobile device is also now becoming a creator of content. That pushes a staggering amount of bandwidth onto the network, [forcing] the network to be more robust and higher performance. It forces more storage onto the cloud—we all want to back things up. And mobile is the reference design for automotive and IoT. All of this innovation we do, whether it be in performance, footprint or energy efficiency in mobile, is touching all of the other different markets. [It] is something that has just started to happen in the past couple of years and is going to accelerate.

Bajarin: Mobile is the catalyst for new things. Things we haven’t even thought of yet. Virtual reality is just one example of those things we weren’t talking a lot about, and now we’re talking very distinctly about how the mobile ecosystem drives the experience. That’s the emphasis of smartphones now and that whole ecosystem—driving all of these other peripheral markets. When we looked just at some usage behaviors, where we’re going in the next generation, 5G, most people are going to consume more and more and more bandwidth (Figure 1).

Burden on Memory Grows

Rayfield: Even a couple of years ago the average [handset] device had 1 GB or less of DRAM. And it was relatively small. It had 4 or 8 GB of NAND. As these devices have become your mobile computer, the burden on the memory has become significantly larger. Flagship devices on average have about 3 GB of DRAM (Figure 2) and we’re working with partners in China where they’re already working on 6 GB DRAM devices.

Figure 2: Low-end and mid-end phone memory demand is accelerating faster than ever before due to the shift to full smartphone capabilities.

Figure 2: Low-end and mid-end phone memory demand is accelerating faster than ever before due to the shift to full smartphone capabilities.

Consumers figured out more is better, and not only because it’s a larger number but because they see a difference in performance.

Everybody has talked about the idea that the cloud is going to replace local storage. The reality is we’re just too impatient for that. Connectivity is not ubiquitous by any means, and ultimately we want our pictures, we want our videos, we want our movies on our phone.

Advances in NAND have allowed us to go from 32 to 64 to 128 GB of local storage, and I see that just continuing. I do a sort of a sample size of my kids and I look at their devices. They’ve got a smartphone with 64 GB NAND and there’s about 8 GB of free storage whenever I look at it. We’re going to continue to go in that direction.

Bajarin: One of the trends that we’re looking at particularly, not just in developed markets, but also as we look more at emerging markets, is: What’s the role cloud services are going to play? If I’m thinking about increasing the capacity of what I can do on a device, and I want to move that to other products to be backed up etc., looking at how many people do this today.

In consumer research, we found that 75 percent of consumers are yet to invest in cloud services [invest meaning] pay for something—pay for iCloud, pay for Dropbox, pay for cloud storage as part of a solution.

[…] local storage is still playing a huge role. […]you’re starting to see increase again in capture. [Consider those] on Snapchat making short videos of their day. Posting them to their stories. Sometimes that’s archived, sometimes it’s not. And dual camera is something you’re going to hear a lot about this year from the component landscape.

[You’ll be able to]  take a 45-plus megapixel picture, [have] multi-range zoom, change the focal length, record two videos: one in slow motion and one in fast motion. We’re talking about a tremendous amount of file storage there. Even if everyone was pervasively subscribing to the cloud today, [consider] how much back-end infrastructure [is needed] to take all that’s being created. There are still some innovations in smartphone cycles, dual camera being one of them, which will put very significant demands on the capabilities of those products.

Mobile to Smart

Rayfield: There are 1-2 billion people that we really haven’t touched with mobile devices yet (Figure 3). Only a couple of years ago, it was assumed that those folks would buy a 20/30/50 dollar feature phone, which ultimately had very little capabilities, just the ability to make a phone call. Clearly, that wasn’t a very interesting market. If you can now look at devices that are well under 100 dollars that are full computers, that give them the ability to access the Internet, that give them the ability to make phone calls, give them the ability to have a computer, I think it changes the landscape a lot even over what we were seeing a couple of years ago.

Figure 3: Smartphone installed base per population.

Figure 3: Smartphone installed base per population.

I’ve seen three examples of phones that are well under 100 dollars (Figure 4). And they’re full functioning computers. They have 1 GB of DRAM, and 4, 8 or 16 GB of NAND, and they have great cameras and high-performance processors. Literally, these are devices that a couple of years ago would’ve been $400, $500 or $600. I think that’s a tipping point that has infrastructure folks putting better infrastructure in developing countries. That is going to open up this huge opportunity for the next 1-2 billion people.

Figure 4: Feature phones that historically had almost no memory are being replaced by very inexpensive smartphones with the same amount of memory as high-end smartphones.

Figure 4: Feature phones that historically had almost no memory are being replaced by very inexpensive smartphones with the same amount of memory as high-end smartphones.

Bajarin: In my analysis of these markets I break out: What did we do to get to this first 2 billion people who are online with their smartphones today? What are their behaviors like? The dynamics between the mid range and the high range are changing within this first 2 billion. We look at the first 2 billion [smartphone users] as a very distinct market.

You hear, ‘oh, smartphones are a saturated market, it’s slowing down,’ and while that’s true, I think we also have to recognize that there are a lot of people who still don’t have smartphones. And that a lot of this is an economic discussion. But the way that I visualize this is: I link our model of smartphone installed base by a number of countries that I track vs. their population (Figure 3). You look at places like China and India, even Brazil which is large, Indonesia, and particularly you look at the continent of Africa, and you see massive, massive, amounts of those populations that are yet to have a smartphone.

Now, what we also keep in mind is that most of them actually have a mobile phone. So it’s not like we’re starting from scratch.

I believe, over time, we will convert the two or so billion people today who are yet to have a smartphone but do have a mobile phone, we will convert those to become smartphone users. And you follow that up with the observation that it will become their primary computer to do things, engage in commerce, learn tips about farming, engage in trade in new ways, and become better educated. All of that has a huge potential increase to the GDP of those countries, particularly less developed parts of the countries.

Planar to 3D

Rayfield: We’ve talked a lot about the smartphones, let’s go back and look at what they’re made up of. Even the 100-dollar devices have computing capabilities that were in PCs only a couple of years ago. From a DRAM standpoint, it’s already the highest performing high-volume DRAM in the industry. It’s all about energy per bit, how do we get more efficient, how do we get battery life to last longer? There’s going to be next generation options whether you put the memory in package or other kinds of things. Those are things that are being driven by the smartphones and are going to be used across other markets. From a NAND standpoint, we’ve talked about people wanting additional storage and capability.

Planar NAND has pretty much run out of steam in terms of lithography, so we’re going to 3D. We’re getting to the point where it will be very easy in one or two or four die configurations to have 64, 128 or 256 GB of memory in the same footprint that you have 4 GB now. That’s an innovation that people will use once they have the storage, and it’s being designed in devices right now. The reality is we think a lot of the mobile phone design is bound by how much memory or NAND [is available].

Bajarin: […] what happens if we move now to a video era? Where all of a sudden we see an increase in capture and creativity and sharing of a range of things, again, probably video experiences we can’t even fathom today because they haven’t been created yet.

There are huge implications across the hardware, software and services landscape, but all of these devices have to be built understanding that consumer demand will be there. If we give them more capacity, they will take advantage of that, but more importantly so will the developer ecosystem. We study millennials a lot, because I think millennials globally put the most demand on their devices [and] video is a normal part of their life and usage, and that’s just going to increase, it’s not going to stop. New behaviors around video and new demands will emerge as this generation starts to get those capabilities from a capture standpoint in terms of sensors, as well as just having the throughput in 5G and beyond to now take advantage of these services. So we look toward this next video era in light of what we saw in the photo era. Unprecedented things happened with photography, and we’re on the cusp of seeing the same thing with video.

Rayfield: One of the things that video puts a burden on is storage. We’ve now gone to 3D NAND (Figure 5). What 3D allows you to do is back off on lithography, making it a little easier to scale and scale vertically. And what we gain is capacity. So in a couple nanometers of silicon you can put all the storage you need in your mobile device.

You also gain is speed. Very quickly the network is getting fast enough that it’s forcing us to get better on storage. And that is going to be the thing that continues to drive us. As we go to this 3D, we get much, much, bigger bandwidth with the storage.

Figure 5: Traditionally, flash has been built in a planar, or two-dimensional structure—much like a one-story building. When we wanted to add space, we had to make the data cells (the rooms in the building) smaller. With 3D, we’re building a vertical building—like a skyscraper.

Figure 5: Traditionally, flash has been built in a planar, or two-dimensional structure—much like a one-story building. When we wanted to add space, we had to make the data cells (the rooms in the building) smaller. With 3D, we’re building a vertical building—like a skyscraper.

In summary, the amount of data that people consume, generate and want to share is driving what the system is. The content that the developed world is generating, consuming and sharing is quickly moving to the next 1-2 billion users and again that’s going to put a lot of pressure both on the devices and their capabilities. And then if you look at a bottleneck of consumer experiences and devices, it’s all about generating, creating, and sharing content. These devices now have a capability where maybe a couple of years ago people wouldn’t have thought that they’d become as ubiquitous as we believe they’ll be around the world. 

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