Ask, and ARM Holdings Delivers

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Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

When I previewed ARM Holdings' (Nasdaq: ARMH  ) incoming fourth-quarter results yesterday, I had said to "look forward to some upbeat results tomorrow morning." Upbeat results are exactly what ARM delivered overnight.

How upbeat?
The chip-architecture designer from across the pond has put up fourth-quarter and full-year fiscal 2011 results. Total revenue in the quarter rose 21% to $217 million, beating the Street's consensus of $193.4 million. The bottom line told a similar story, with earnings per share of $0.17 topping the expected $0.14.

Looking at the full year, revenue put up a 24% increase to $785 million, and operating margin expanded from 40.4% to 45.1% compared with 2010. Profit before tax also jumped 37%.

CEO Warren East said, "In Q4 and throughout 2011 ARM has seen strong licensing growth, driven by market-leading semiconductor companies increasing their commitment to ARM technology, and more new customers choosing ARM technology for the first time."

During the quarter, ARM inked 25 processor licenses, many of which are destined for smart TVs and tablets, along with the requisite smartphone wins. Shipment of ARM-based chips continues to grow, with 1.2 billion chips shipped in the quarter for smartphones and tablets, a 10% rise, while consumer and embedded devices grew 40% to 1 billion chip shipments.

ARM highlighted its overwhelming presence at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, vis-a-vis partners like NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments. These chipmakers have demonstrated prototypes of tablets and laptops running Microsoft Windows 8 on ARM within the past few months, which gives ARM chips an entry into Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) territory.

ARM licensee Marvell Technology recently announced that its Armada 1500 processor will be running the next generation of Google TVs, a switch from the first generation's x86 chips.

Meanwhile, Intel is prepping an invasion of its own, with its Medfield Atom chips and its partnerships with Motorola Mobility and Lenovo. For now, mobile is still ARM turf.

Battleground Android
(Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Android will be a processor warzone for ARM, Intel, and smaller MIPS Technologies (Nasdaq: MIPS  ) . Since Android apps automatically run in a virtual machine, making them indifferent to processor architecture, Intel and MIPS have openings to try to get their feet in the door.

MIPS was showing off an Android 4.0 tablet at CES with its chips inside, but Intel is the real potential threat here. The first-party Android apps are already compatible with x86 architecture, but third-party apps are somewhat of a different story. If an app doesn't tap into native ARM features, it would run fine on Intel chips. It's the apps that do use native ARM functions that present an obstacle for Chipzilla.

Intel thinks that roughly three-quarters of Android apps will be a breeze, but the remaining quarter that use native ARM code will be a hurdle. Some of these apps can be addressed with a process called binary translation, leading Intel to estimate roughly 90% app compatibility once Medfield launches. It's a rough solution that isn't as smooth as running entirely native code, so we'll have to see how the market receives it.

Android will be a major mobile battleground for these chip designers in the foreseeable future.

Royalties? Check.
Last year saw 7.8 billion royalty-bearing chips shipped, a 28% rise over the 6.1 billion units shipped in 2010. The increased volume was partially offset by a slightly lower average royalty per unit, which fell from 4.8 cents to 4.6 cents.

Those royalty checks keep rolling in, with royalty revenues, including those from its physical IP division, now comprising 52% of ARM's total revenues, much higher than the 40% that it comprised in 2005. The company expects that proportion to continue climbing in the future.

Speaking of the future
While ARM sees a robust 2012, it's staying relatively cautious with its guidance for the coming year because of macro uncertainties. It has a record order backlog and hopes to tap into new markets. First-quarter sales are expected to be on par with current market expectations of about $200 million, and the same can be said for full-year revenues, which should be around $860 million.

One more thing
There is another company paying ARM chip royalties that's been pumping out devices. You may have heard of it: Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) . Cupertino's blowout quarter of its own saw more than 60 million iDevice shipments powered by ARM chips, including iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches.

Another important fact to consider is that royalty revenues are recognized one quarter after the associated unit shipments, so chips shipped in Q3 are reported in Q4. This means that the figures just reported probably don't include all of those iDevices that Cupertino just moved.

ARM has gathered nearly unstoppable mobile momentum, and it's smartly leveraging that position to push into new markets like microcontrollers, storage devices, and smart TVs, among others. I'm a relatively new shareholder, having bought shares late last year, but I'm definitely looking forward to the next decade.

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Fool contributor Evan Niu has sold bullish put spreads on NVIDIA and Qualcomm. He owns shares of ARM Holdings and Apple, but he has no other position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Intel, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Marvell Technology Group, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Microsoft, Google, NVIDIA, Apple, and Intel, writing puts in NVIDIA, and creating bull call spread positions in Apple and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2012, at 5:49 AM, ewang808 wrote:

    Is ARM going to be back on SA? The sold off timing was really bad, and non Fool.

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