Japan Answers The 64-Megabit Question

Advantage: Japan. Last week, Hitachi Ltd. unveiled the prototype for a new semiconductor that leapfrogs over a generation of memory-chip technology. These chips are essential to computers but are also finding use in such products as compact disc players and televisions. Hitachi's new dynamic access memory (DRAM) chip has a capacity of 64 megabits, or the equivalent of more than 500 newspaper pages. That's 16 times more storage than the current top-of-theline, four-megabit chips distributed by IBM and others. The relentless improvement in chip density has led Cypress Semiconductor founder T. J. Rodgers to affect a ho-hum attitude: "You hear about the newest generation I of chips, and you look down at your watch and say, is it 1991 yet?" But the crushing cost of | developing each new generation of DRAM chips is forcing American firms out of the process, giving dominance to the more well-heeled and patient Japanese.

The effects of Hitachi's announcement won't be felt for some time: Hitachi says that it won't have 64-megabit chips available commercially until 1995. Individual U.S. companies have also been working toward higher-density DRAM chips, but cooperative efforts have been troubled so far. One such attempt, the planned U.S. Memories consortium, fell apart late in 1989; the other, Austin-based Sematech, has proved slow off the blocks. It suffered another blow last week when its chief executive, Robert N. Noyce, died of a heart attack. Noyce, 62, hat it seems, the American-bred industry he helped create is in ever more danger of being overtaken by Japan Inc.