Tablets and smartphones are here to stay. But unless they're stamped with an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) logo, they don't seem to make a difference.
That's what Atmel (Nasdaq: ATML ) CEO Steve Laub said this week, as Atmel's present and near-future sales turned out to be weaker than analysts had expected. Touchscreen controllers for modern smartphones and tablets are the best performers in Atmel's product catalog today -- and even so, "virtually all end markets will be declining" in the fourth quarter.
Atmel doesn't have the all-important Apple account for iPad screen controllers; that job falls to a combination of chips from Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM ) , Analog Devices, and Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) . The company doesn't even have a complete lock on the market for Android tablet touchscreen controllers. Cypress Semiconductor (Nasdaq: CY ) is a fierce competitor and powers a few choice accounts.
And here's the kicker: Non-Apple tablets have done some decent business this year, but there's a "very significant adjustment" going on in this nascent fourth quarter. Tablets not named iPad are sitting unsold on store shelves and in distribution channels, according to Laub. The demand for these things has "softened." This sounds an awful lot like consumers got bored with alternative tablets.
As a result, Atmel's third-quarter sales came in short of Street targets and the next quarter will be even lighter.
The third generation of maXTouch controllers is "clearly superior to anything else announced by others," says Laub, and ships in volume next year. Those are bold words.
Will Apple choose this allegedly superior technology over the current TI-based solution? Will the improvements be noticeable to consumers and made into a selling point for Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI ) or Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) tablets with Atmel inside? At least one of these things needs to happen in 2012, lest all this tough talk turns out to be hot air. After all, the hottest Android tablet uses a last-generation controller that only sees two fingers at a time. Do we really want or need more touch power?
Granted, Atmel shares look cheap at less than eight times trailing earnings. But with falling revenue ahead, that might be all Atmel is worth right now. But maybe the company can deliver on its promises and rise up to double-digit earnings multiples. To find out, you'll need to keep a close eye on Atmel. Just click here to add the stock to your Foolish watchlist, and you'll be set.