To be sure, the thriving graphics specialist had just used its company blog to outline several reasons game developers rely heavily on NVIDIA's technology to differentiate themselves, and it also recently announced support for its PhysX and APEX software development kits on Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT ) next-gen Xbox One console.
Of course, considering the ongoing rise of mobile devices as the world's preferred tech medium, the gaming industry is just tip of the iceberg for NVIDIA's GPU technology.
"The IT World is being upended"
Now, NVIDIA stock is trading up more than 6% as of this writing and set a new 52-week-high this morning after the company's executive vice president, David Shannon, dropped a wonderful bombshell on the chip industry.
More specifically, Shannon took to the company's official blog to announce NVIDIA will begin licensing its Kepler-based GPU cores and visual computing patent portfolio to device manufacturers "to serve the needs of a large piece of the market."
The post, which began with the words, "The IT world is being upended," led up to the announcement by highlighting the fact PC sales are declining with the rise of HD display-enabled smartphones and tablets, the latter of which "will soon become a computing-devices industry that produces many billions of units a year."
As a result, NVIDIA has watched industry leaders emerge, with some companies creating systems from industry-standard chips, while others have chosen to remain "vertically integrated and build their own chips, systems, software, and even services."
Of course, it's no wonder other companies may want to take advantage of NVIDIA's work; NVIDIA currently invests more than $1 billion in research and development every year to improve its visual computing technology.
But while NVIDIA excels at pushing the envelope and improving the graphics and computing technology other companies require, Shannon also admitted that "it's not practical to build silicon or systems to address every part of the expanding market. Adopting a new [licensing] business approach will allow us to address the universe of devices."
In short, licensing should allow NVIDIA to more effectively permeate the current mobile computing revolution on a scale that's simply not possible through its current business model -- and NVIDIA should be able to profit handsomely in the process.
As Shannon also reminded us, NVIDIA isn't completely new to the licensing game. Remember, they licensed a specialized GPU core to Sony for the Playstation 3, and Intel has been paying NVIDIA more than $250 million a year as part of a six-year, $1.5 billion settlement to use its visual computing patents beginning in 2011.
But who will bite?
Unsurprisingly, industry analysts wasted no time chiming in, with Raymond James analyst Hans Mosesmann first addressing the Cupertino-based elephant in the room:
If there was ever a way for Nvidia to get into Apple, the IP licensing angle is likely it. This is particularly true if Apple has ambitions in the datacenter (although nothing has been announced to date). In this case, licensed graphics from Imagination Technology (used by Apple, Samsung Electronics and Intel in mobile platforms) are not suitable in higher-end computing. This also could limit ARM's Mali effort, which is just starting to gain traction.
Meanwhile, Patrick Wang of Evercore Partners doesn't "see licensing as a meaningful business of EPS contributor in the next few years," and noted that Evercore's checks already "indicate significant internal GPU design efforts [at Apple], perhaps looking to eliminate the royalty expense."
Of course, as an NVIDIA investor myself, I certainly wouldn't complain about the incremental benefits a deal with Apple or Samsung could offer, but that doesn't mean NVIDIA absolutely must make such a deal happen. Just last month NVIDIA turned in solid quarterly results, beating analyst estimates on both revenue and earnings per share, thanks largely to record GAAP and non-GAAP gross margins of 54.3% and 54.6%, respectively.
What's more, NVIDIA boasts no debt on its balance sheet along with an almost ridiculous $3.7 billion cash pile, representing more than 40% of its current total market capitalization. It should also come as no surprise, then, that NVIDIA plans to use some of that cash to return at least $1 billion to shareholders this year in the form of dividends and share repurchases.
As a result, it's safe to say today's licensing announcement is simply icing on the cake for NVIDIA investors, and I remain convinced the stock is a solid buy even near fresh 52-week-highs.
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