From the Reagan Administration onward, almost every boom within the tech sector has done wonders for a handful of chip companies that were able to take advantage of it. The PC industry boom propelled Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , AMD, and Micron Technology (NYSE: MU ) , among others. The cell phone boom, meanwhile, boosted the likes of Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM ) , Texas Instruments, and RF Micro Devices (Nasdaq: RFMD ) .
Right now, I believe we're in the midst of another such boom. But since it cuts across two well-established tech industries -- PCs and cell phones -- the market doesn't look at it as such. Namely, it's a boom in portable, Internet-connected devices -- products that can do things like browse the Web and stream quality video, but are also small and light enough to be carried around on a daily basis. Smartphones such as Apple's iPhone and Research In Motion's BlackBerries qualify here, as do netbook PCs. And so do some other devices, such as the iPod Touch, Amazon.com's Kindle e-Reader, and the much-rumored Apple tablet.
Look at the spectacular unit shipment growth seen in smartphones, netbooks, and e-readers, and it becomes clear that a boom is well under way. So, which chip companies serving this market stand out? I think they break down into four different segments.
These are the companies making the chips that provide the raw computing and graphics power needed to run these devices. Intel, with its Atom processor line, has to be near the top of the list. The company's efforts to create a low-power chip that can handle basic PC tasks have translated into a dominance of the netbook market that I don't see it relinquishing anytime soon. And before all is said and done, the Atom might find its way into some smartphones.
Qualcomm is another name to watch. Already the undisputed leader in the market for the baseband processors that power cell phones and wireless data modems, Qualcomm is trying to up the ante with its Snapdragon processor line. By combining 3G communications features with enough processing power to challenge Intel's Atom, Snapdragon is beginning to find a home in both smartphones and higher-end netbooks. And since Snapdragon chips carry higher price tags than less powerful baseband processors, they should help offset the pricing pressure that Qualcomm is seeing in the latter area.
Nvidia (Nasdaq: NVDA ) might be a diamond in the rough. The company's Tegra processor combines a healthy dose of traditional processing power with market-leading graphics capabilities. The Tegra is already being used in Microsoft's Zune HD media player, and it's reportedly going to power a line of HTC smartphones and the successor to the Nintendo DS. With the market focusing on Nvidia's troubles in the PC graphics market, the Tegra could give the company an unexpected boost.
All of these wireless devices need space to store everything from videos to apps to e-books. That's good news for flash memory giant SanDisk (Nasdaq: SNDK ) , as it recovers from an epic crash in memory prices that's accompanied the recession. In addition to being a leading vendor of the memory cards and embedded flash modules that are going into so many smartphones, SanDisk is working to become a leading vendor of the flash memory-based solid-state drives (SSDs) increasingly used in netbooks. And even if a particular device uses flash memory from a rival, the device's adoption helps SanDisk by boosting flash memory prices.
I'm not as high on Micron, because of its heavy exposure to a PC memory market that's going nowhere fast, but the company's attempts to expand its flash memory business, courtesy of its IM Flash joint venture with Intel, could help its growth prospects a little. As might the company's mobile DRAM business, with smartphones gobbling up increasing amounts of the relatively expensive memory.
Keeping down the power consumption of these portable devices, with their processors and massive displays, is quite the challenge, and it requires a number of complex, high-margin analog chips. National Semiconductor, which gets 30% of its revenue from mobile devices and is seeing healthy adoption of its analog chips for smartphones, would be one way to play this trend.
But investors who are looking for more of a "pure play" in this space, and are willing to assume more risk as well, might want to look at Advanced Analogic Technologies. Advanced Analogic gets the lion's share of its revenue from the cell-phone market, with manufacturers like Samsung and LG using the company's chips in a variety of high-end phones.
These are companies that develop chips for a variety of applications. Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM ) is probably the most intriguing name here. The company has become a leader in the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chip markets, and its "combo chips," which feature some combination of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and FM Radio technology, have been adopted by Apple and other smartphone makers. In addition, Broadcom has a growing baseband processor business that's picked up design wins with Nokia and Samsung.
Broadcom's archrival, Marvell Technology, is also a big player in Wi-Fi, and has come out with its own combo chip products. In addition, the company has an application processor business that makes chips for smartphones, and it just announced a new processor for the e-reader market that should bring down prices for next-generation products. Marvell is also seeing booming sales of controller chips for SSDs, though I think this is offset by the fact that the company is also a leading maker of controllers for the hard drives that SSDs replace.
Unlike the PC boom, which gave us Intel, it doesn't look as if the portable device boom will give us a single name that we'll all remember as its biggest winner. But it will leave some established chip names much better off.