The soaring popularity of MP3 music players is driving demand for flash memory chips faster than suppliers can keep up.

Sales of portable media players will grow from 134.5 million units in 2005 to 187.7 million units in 2006, according to a new study from the market research firm Gartner.

Despite converting factories from DRAM (dynamic RAM) to NAND production, chip makers won't be able to keep up with such growth. So the market for NAND flash will see a 5.8 per cent shortage in the fourth quarter of 2006 and a 2.6 per cent shortage in the first quarter of 2007, Gartner said.

That could lead to tough competition between flash makers like Toshiba, Samsung Electronics and the newly merged Micron Technology and Lexar Media.

In the US, Intel has made a bid for the business by agreeing with Micron in 2005 to create a joint venture flash memory company called IM Flash Technologies.

The pending flash shortage could be even more severe if Apple releases a high-capacity version of its iPod nano, said Joseph Unsworth, a principal research analyst for Gartner.

By the end of the year, Apple could launch a flash-based music player with 10GB to 20GB of capacity, far above the 1GB to 4GB capacity of its current flash units.

Many devices already have 30GB or 40GB, but they save song data on spinning hard disk drives, not solid state electronics. The industry is changing fast. Eighty per cent of the devices made in 2005 used flash memory, with the rest using hard drives.

Greater capacity will let designers add new features. The next generation of portable media players will include video playback capability, wireless communication and integration with consumer electronics and cars.

Flash memory is popular with designers of digital cameras, mobile phones and digital music players because it can store a huge amount of data without requiring constant power.

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