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Transition to LTE will wreak havoc in mobile chip landscape

The mobile chip market has been a scene of dramatic upheaval for the past few years, as smartphones gain PC-class computing tasks and processors to ma

By PETER WHITE

Published: 30 June, 2011

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The mobile chip market has been a scene of dramatic upheaval for the past few years, as smartphones gain PC-class computing tasks and processors to match, drawing a new set of contenders into the space. The entry of Nvidia, Intel and others has put pressure on mobile incumbents to up their apps processor game and understand the needs of intensive computing and web activity. It has also increased their focus on their own differentiators, their expertise in modems and in integrating multiple radios with the processors. Integration of more and more components in low cost, low power SoCs (systems on chip) have opened up another battlefield, one that is increasingly vital as smartphones enter the mass market and become price sensitive. Here, traditional all-in-one suppliers like Qualcomm and ST-Ericsson are kings, and Broadcom has obvious credentials, but the newcomers are stepping up their game too, with Intel acquiring Infineon Wireless and Nvidia buying Icera, among other transactions aimed at the fully integrated smartphone SoC.

This is reducing the competitive advantage of the well-established majors, especially as two of them, Texas Instruments and Freescale, have virtually exited the handset baseband sector, possibly with poor timing, as they are now excluded from the all-in-one segment. Qualcomm is showing few signs of weakness though, and has managed to leap ahead of its rivals both on the modem side, with early HSPA+ and LTE launches, and on the applications front, where its close alliances with software giants are paying dividends, as seen in its monopoly (for now) of WP7 smartphones.

That does not mean Qualcomm can rest on its laurels, and the company’s story will be one of transition over the coming few years – so far, it has avoided dramatic changes of direction because it has not been forced to react defensively to a major threat, but the first half of this decade will nevertheless mark a huge shift in the giant’s business priorities as it adapts to the slow decline of CDMA-based technologies and to a new IPR landscape in LTE (though this is far less transformed than Qualcomm’s enemies would have wanted).

For now though, this is Qualcomm’s market to lose, and it is expanding into the digital home and PC-class devices like tablets too. According to Strategy Analytics, Qualcomm continued to dominate the smartphone application processor and baseband markets in the first quarter, but in the app processor alone, Nvidia was looking threatening, breaking into the top five for the first time in terms of revenue share. The analysts estimate that the global smartphone apps processor market grew by 108% year-on-year in the quarter, to reach $1.68 billion in value. Qualcomm, TI, Samsung, Marvell and Nvidia formed the top five, and Qualcomm saw its own revenue rise by 46% year-on-year to $3.88 billion. Strategy Analytics believes that the company's Snapdragon app processors accounted for 22% of the total and helped keep average selling prices from slipping.

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