The mobile market is the greatest growth story ever told. Now Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) wants to write the next chapter.
The story so far
Over the last decade or so, cell phones grew from a yuppie luxury to an everyday necessity. Mobile mavens such as Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) shipped 1.2 billion handsets last year. Compare that to 1997, when a puny global market supported just 107 million brick-like dinosaur phones.
As the market grew, the devices improved -- and formerly super-fancy features morphed into must-haves. The 4 million cameraphones in 2001 ballooned into more than 700 million in 2007, and it's getting harder and harder to find a simple non-camera phone these days. Smartphones started out as Palm (Nasdaq: PALM ) PDAs (remember those?) and early Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) BlackBerrys, but after the runaway success of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone, every handset designer wants to build one, and untold millions of consumers want 'em.
Chapter and verse
And that's where TI comes in. The markets for standard handsets, camera chips, and high-end smartphones have pretty much been staked out already. The next hypergrowth opportunity needs new features -- and TI thinks that microprojectors are it.
"We see no reason for this not to follow a path similar to the camera phone," says company spokesman Craig Moizio. "It's been requested of us by mobile phone companies and consumer electronics companies all over the world." TI just released a tiny, low-power version of the DLP technology you might have inside your big-screen projection HDTV. To complement that product, TI also upgraded its OMAP mobile hardware platform to improve its image-processing horsepower, and added support for its Pico projector. The end result of these innovations is the ability to embed cell phones with a high-quality projectable video display.
In this space, it's a two-horse race between TI and upstart projectionist Microvision (Nasdaq: MVIS ) . TI is first to market with a Samsung phone designed for Korean and European consumers, which should be released this month. The company also expects to release a phone with its next-generation Pico technology by 2010. Microvision is hoping for its first commercial customers no earlier than the second half of next year. Though Microvision claims to have the smaller and more efficient projector chip, TI will have the first-mover advantage.
The Foolish upshot
Sharing videos and images on the go is tricky today, requiring us to crowd friends or business partners around a four-inch screen at best. By 2015, projecting the good stuff on table cloths or whiteboards will be a snap. I'm thinking two-way video conferences in any conference room or coffee shop, one-upping Cisco's (Nasdaq: CSCO ) Telepresence vision.
Texas Instruments should make a mint powering that next killer feature. If so, investor returns will soon follow.