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At market close on Dec. 9, Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM ) announced a mass-market, 64-bit smartphone applications processor coupled with an integrated LTE-Advanced baseband. That's something that shouldn't surprise those of you who read, "Does This 64-Bit Rumor Pass The Smell Test?"
The chip isn't due to sample until the first half of 2014 and isn't likely to find its way into commercially available handsets until the second half of 2014. But the announcement is notable.
A low-end 64-bit chip makes the high end look silly
Qualcomm's first 64-bit chip, the Snapdragon 410, is actually a chip designed for sub-$150 mass-market smartphones. To be fair, the low end is where the volume and the growth are today, particularly as the high end is showing some real signs of saturation. Further, at the low end of the market, handset vendors tend to buy entire platforms, which means that Qualcomm not only sells an integrated apps processor and baseband, but the odds are very good that it's selling a connectivity combo chip, power management, and RF transceiver, to boot.
That being said, it's hard to get around the fact that Qualcomm's recently announced high-end Snapdragon 805 -- which should be substantially faster than the quad-core ARM (NASDAQ: ARMH ) Cortex A53 found in the Snapdragon 410 -- is still a 32-bit chip, while this lower-end part is 64-bit. While the high-end part will be faster, and the SoC more feature rich, this is probably going to look pretty silly from a marketing standpoint. Qualcomm will need to manage the marketing here very carefully. Naturally, Qualcomm likely has a 64-bit iteration of its custom, higher-end CPU core likely aimed for a 2015 launch, coinciding with the ramp of TSMC's 20-nanometer process. So, once that comes out, it can hit all cylinders on the 64-bit marketing campaign.
Why is Qualcomm doing this?
Quite frankly, ARM's Cortex A53 is a rather compelling chip -- 64-bit or not -- for cost-sensitive SoCs. It seems only natural that Qualcomm, along with the rest of the SoC vendors, would adopt this core for their low-cost SoCs. After all, Qualcomm used ARM's Cortex A5, its successor the A7, and now the A53. Should anybody really be surprised?
Qualcomm is going to go to great lengths to play up the "64-bit" aspect of the chip as it really has become a marketing requirement, even if it's not as big a deal as it's been played up to be. Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) got to market with the very first 64-bit ARM processor core in existence (and they say Apple isn't innovative). Intel (NASDAQ: INTC ) has been shipping 64-bit capable mobile CPU cores for quite a while, although without Android support for 64-bit, these chips were effectively 32-bit chips.
Does the competitive picture change?
Intel is all set to go with a 64-bit chip, but it won't be playing in the mass market, integrated LTE market until 2015. The real question is what happens to the integrated apps processor + LTE solutions from Broadcom (UNKNOWN: BRCM.DL ) and NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA ) ? Broadcom's first part -- dual-core A9 + LTE -- will ship in devices during early 2014, well before the Qualcomm part is ready to hit the market. But its second-half offering will be a quad-core A7, which should put it behind the new Qualcomm offering from a CPU performance -- and the 64-bit marketing angle. NVIDIA's quad-core Cortex A9 part will be shipping in the first quarter of 2014, but it's unclear if the company will refresh its smartphone-oriented part during the second half of 2014 with a Cortex A53 based CPU.
Foolish bottom line
Qualcomm seems to be poised to extend its lead in the mass-market apps processor market. While other players will be offering up competitive solutions, and perhaps a surprising entry from the likes of MediaTek may "spoil" Qualcomm's advantage, the odds are good that Qualcomm's growth in the low end of the handset market continues nicely throughout 2014.
For the other players -- namely Broadcom and NVIDIA -- it's still likely that they gain traction, especially since a number of sell-side reports, including those from JPMorgan's Harlan Sur and R.W. Baird's Tristan Gerra,seem to think that Broadcom has closed some real deals. The extent to which they do remains to be seen.
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