Why the future of mobile devices depends on memory

Raj Talluri | April 2020

Given the current events of the world, many of us depend more than ever on our mobile devices to stay connected to our communities and the world at large. Specifically, the cameras in our smartphones have helped us to document and to connect while we experience the “new normal” of spending our time at home. But do you remember the time when mobile phones did NOT have cameras built into them?

What’s the best camera?

I distinctly remember this time, although granted it has been a while. I’ve built my career in technology, specifically around the design of mobile devices. When I was at Texas Instruments helping develop technology for early digital cameras, I remember arguing with my former boss about whether people would want cameras in their phones. Later, I had the similar debate when I was at Qualcomm on whether smartphone cameras can rival modern digital point-and- shoot cameras. Even phone OEMs at the time doubted that people would use smartphone cameras as their main everyday cameras. People would always ask me, “What’s the best camera?” My answer was always the same, “The one you have with you.” To me, it made perfect sense for cameras to live in smartphones.

Today, the camera is one of the primary reasons people upgrade their phones. In five years, the phone you’re holding will be completely different and the changes will start with the camera. Some new 5G phones will have five cameras and 8K video. In the future, the entire back of your phone could be a camera.

Bottom line: Now more than ever, the phone is the most important consumer device today.

What goes into having a camera on your phone?

What you may not realize is the processing power required to create an image and the capability of your device to power artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning right at your fingertips. For instance, the camera on your mobile device is always analyzing, “Am I taking a picture of a person? Where is the face? Is the sun out?” Some cameras even take multiple pictures and then determine which you will like the best!

With 5G, these use cases will increase. Newly available foldable screens are much bigger, which means users will run multiple apps in multiple windows on their phone, like you would on your laptop. And each of these windows needs dedicated bandwidth, which means a processor to handle multiple apps. To do this processing, you need high-speed, high-bandwidth memory —close to the processor. Or you have a serious bottleneck.

The 5G phones arriving on the market boast an insane amount of processing power and ever-increasing amounts of memory and storage. Some of the latest smartphones have multiple heterogeneous processors, some clocking to over 3Ghz and 16GB of DRAM and 1TB of storage. We find that every time processing speeds up, device manufacturers start looking for lower power, lower latency and higher capacity memory and storage. That’s the fuel — and that’s where Micron comes into play. We have a broad portfolio of products and technologies to power whatever comes next.

How do Micron products power the future of smartphones?

The recently announced Xiaomi Mi 10 leverages Micron LPDDR5. It is the world’s first low-power DDR5 DRAM in mass production to enable 5G smartphones to operate with the ultra-low-latency response times and low power modes necessary to support multiple high-resolution cameras, multiplayer gaming, and augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications.

This is not the only place Micron is driving innovation to support the future of mobile. We’re also looking at processing versus memory and storage. In our products today, we think of processing and memory as separate from each other. But I take my cues from biology where it’s hard to tell in a human brain where the processing happens and where the memory is.

We anticipate the same will eventually happen in technology. With memory – DRAM – there’s very low latency and very high speed, but it’s nonpersistent and more expensive. Then there’s NAND, which has slower speed and higher latency. But is there something in between? Is there something that has more performance characteristics of DRAM, yet is persistent like NAND? This blurring of the lines between memory and storage is where the market will evolve.

Another future trend I see taking root is the contextualization of the mobile device based on the user. Everybody uses devices differently. As our devices continue to get smarter, they will recognize who is using them and adapt to the user’s context. Since your browsing, your viewing and your commute differ from mine, your phone will behave totally differently than mine. AI and machine learning will continue to expand the possibilities of what our devices will know about us and be able to do for us. Contextualizing will be at another level in the next few years. Your device will be totally aware, personalized and customized to you.

This is where your mobile device is going. A recent article in Wired pointed out that the most valuable data is increasingly becoming portable and personal, from smartphones and wearable sensors. They see a data mining gold rush that will have companies “accruing Yottabytes (10^24) of data.”

The next generations of mobile devices will continue to help us work smarter, expand our entertainment possibilities and connect us to the world in new and innovative ways. My team at Micron is focused on anticipating these trends and figuring out how to quantify them into the memory and storage products that will support a future that keeps us all connected.

Senior VP & General Manager, MBU

Raj Talluri

Raj Talluri is the senior vice president and general manager of the Mobile Business Unit at Micron Technology. He is a technologist who has built camera teams at Texas Instruments and Qualcomm. His doctoral dissertation from The University of Texas at Austin focused on image technology. Best of all, he is a photographer, thrilled to bring his work home with him.