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VIEWPOINTS : TAKING A GAMBLE ON U.S. MEMORIES : Experts say a $1-billion joint venture by U.S. firms may not cure all the competitive ills facing the nation's computer chip makers, but it's a start.

July 02, 1989|MELANIE PICKETT

I n a move to improve the nation's competitive position in the worldwide electronics industry, seven leading American technology companies unveiled a proposal June 21 to form a $1-billion joint venture to manufacture computer memory chips. While experts laud the goal of reviving the nation's memory chip industry, the venture's chances of success are unclear. Times researcher Melanie Pickett asked various experts whether the proposed company, U.S. Memories Inc., is the best way to rebuild the U.S. memory chip industry. Excerpts of their comments follow.

Bobby R. Inman, head of an electronics concern, former chief executive of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. consortium and a past deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency:

"I'm waiting to see on U.S. Memories. If this is entirely privately funded by the companies, I applaud it. The reality is that the Japanese companies that are so successful are all combines. They've got banks, they've got enormous capital support. This is a pretty hard business to try and get back in. IBM is not a merchant manufacturer. To draw them into it and to be able to use their technical expertise and to use the marketing expertise of the other firms, I see as a plus.

"(In setting up a consortium), the key is the clarity of their purpose and how the technology will be shared and how the profits will be shared. And if it's got those worked out clearly, then there should be no problem. The complexity comes in a consortium when all of the partners do not have the same interest, when they've got a different set of interests. MCC (Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp.) was a particularly complex structure because you had computer firms and semiconductor manufacturers, and you had four different funding streams and all the members were not in all the programs. It's when . . . the rules aren't clear on how will the technology get used and how will they profit from it that you run into some interesting complications."

Charles H. Ferguson, a political scientist at the Center for Technology Policy at MIT:

"Given the very disturbing absence of a coherent, long-term technology policy on the part of the U.S. government and given the equally disturbing absence of governmental efforts to increase savings, reduce the twin deficits and reduce the cost of capital to American industry, I think that U.S. Memories is the most effective response available to U.S. industry at this time.

"The venture, although supported by very good people and very good compa

nies, must unavoidably contend with and work within the general U.S. technological and competitive environment. And that environment includes several extremely disturbing conditions.

"First, there's the extremely high cost of capital in the United States relative to Japan. Second, there's the fact that the Japanese electronics industry is exercising increasing and already

substantial market power over (memory chip) markets and there is the extremely disturbing and very real prospect of its exercising market power in semiconductor capital equipment markets. And U.S. Memories, although it has IBM's technology behind it, must still purchase capital equipment. We may, by the early 1990s, be in the position of finding there are very few, if any, American suppliers remaining in critical portions of the semiconductor capital equipment infrastructure.

"I think it is unspeakably scandalous that U.S. Memories is having any difficulty raising $1 billion when this critical industry is on the verge of being lost in the United States and when President Bush seems to be able to throw $100 billion down the drain for the savings and loan industry."

Gordon Moore, chairman of Intel and of the Semiconductor Industry Assn.:

"It's the best way we've come up with yet. It turns out that none of the companies in the semiconductor business that haven't already committed (to the joint venture) seem willing to step up to do this themselves because of the very large investment required and the high risk associated with it. So, collectively--with the users--we thought that we could solve this problem, which really is something of concern to the entire U.S. electronics industry rather than to a particular company."

Richard B. Edelman, professor of finance at American University:

"The days when entrepreneurs could go out and invent things by themselves in a garage are gone. It requires the same sort of intense investment in research and development facilities, in many ways, that the utilities require. The kind of antitrust laws that prevented this kind of organization in the past--when the United States was pretty much the world economy in many industries--that environment is no longer here.

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