Om Nom Nom: Apple Leads Industry In Flash Consumption

The popularity of its iPod, iPhone, and iPad product lines have propelled Apple to the top of the charts when it comes to NAND flash consumption. iSuppli reports that the Cupertino-based company has surpassed HP (the former champ), with 2010 purchases coming in at $17.5 billion. That's a massive 79.6 percent jump from 2009, during which Apple bought just $9.7B in Flash.

"Apple's surge to leadership in semiconductor spending in 2010 was driven by the overwhelming success of its wireless products, namely the iPhone and the iPad," said iSuppli analyst Wenlie Ye. "These products consume enormous quantities of NAND flash memory, which is also found in the Apple iPod. Because of this, Apple in 2010 was the world's No. 1 purchaser of NAND flash."

Apple is already one of the top five semiconductor purchasers, but Ye noted that the company spends 60 percent of its semiconductor budget on wireless products as opposed to microprocessors. HP leads in that area, but Apple may surpass it in terms of microprocessor business within 2011.

Apple's growth has been metoric, by any standards.

HP spends the majority of its semiconductor budget on mature markets (notebooks, desktops). The PC market grew by 14.2 percent last year--an amount that pales considering smartphone and tablet purchases rose 62 percent and 900 percent over the same period. The flip side to this, of course, is that the PC market is already enormous--the tablet industry could likely grow at 900 percent for several years running without actually challenging total PC shipments.

iSuppli expects the tablet market to grow to 12.3 exabytes of flash capacity by 2014, driven by increasing storage densities and higher demand for tablet products. By 2014 the company expects tablets will account for up to 16 percent of all Flash. It's not clear how much of that growth is based on expectations of increased demand in the mature PC market. Falling SSD prices have made the drives popular, particularly in the notebook/netbook segment. The PC industry might not be growing at anything like the rate of the tablet business, but the sheer size of the market makes even marginal growth quite significant in real numbers.

iSuppli goes on to imply that Apple is likely to continue gobbling up semiconductors thanks to its integrated hardware/software ecosystem. While this may be true, the other PC manufacturers each do billions of dollars in business year to year. Apple's expanding business may highlight a trend towards mobile devices, but the mainstream OEMs aren't exactly going anywhere.

If Apple's share of the Flash market continues to expand as it has, the company's voice will have a significant affect on how Flash and future solid-state storage technologies evolve. As we've discussed previously, Flash suffers from long-term data retention issues that make it a less-than-ideal choice for long-term storage at 22nm and below. There are a number of post-Flash solid state storage concepts that might work; Apple's preference could influence the evolution of future standards.