Intel Needs to Deliver at Mobile World Congress

Unfortunately, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) , the world's largest chipmaker by revenue, failed to deliver at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. There was no mention of new, more competitive mobile chips, nor was there any mention of material tablet or smartphone design wins. In short, there was very little "red meat" for long-suffering investors looking for a mobile pulse.

CES was a bust
While CES has been used from time to time by some of the larger chip vendors to introduce next-generation products (coupled with some design wins), only NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA  ) really had much to show in the way of truly new mobile silicon with its next-generation Tegra K1. This was a particularly impressive part, especially on graphics, which made Intel's no-show a bit disappointing.

Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) , the big dog in the mobile chip space, already announced its next-generation silicon (Snapdragon 805 and Snapdragon 410) in late 2013, so a lack of meaningful new announcements wasn't a problem. This company has been -- and continues to be -- on time and on target with its mobile silicon, and represents Intel's fiercest competition yet.

Mobile World Congress could be better
Given that Intel didn't launch its next-generation 22-nanometer smartphone platform at CES, it stands to reason that this platform, known as Merrifield, will launch at Mobile World Congress. This part, while initially touted as a high-end part at Intel's investor meeting about a year ago, is now likely to go into mainstream/mid-range smartphones.

The biggest worry is that when the Merrifield platform launches, it could end up initially paired with Intel's XMM 7160 LTE modem. This is not a particularly fully featured modem and, if the presentation materials at the company's investor meeting were accurate, it would be replaced fairly quickly with a much better modem that adds those missing features. The question remains just how quickly this modem will find its way into the market.

At any rate, investors should set their expectations reasonably. Intel isn't going to win a contract for Samsung's flagship Galaxy phone, nor is it likely to win a high-end design from LG or Lenovo, but it could win a mid-range design or two from one of these players, marking meaningful, if still immaterial to the top/bottom lines, progress in smartphones.

Investors should not accept another year like this
Truth be told, Intel is further behind in mobile than what many (including Intel's own projections at the 2012 investor meeting) had expected. Intel was late to the market with nearly every one of its platform launches from Medfield through Merrifield, and its progress in multi-comms hasn't been as fast as expected. Additionally, its efforts to integrate cellular baseband, connectivity, and other key components have been pushed out and delayed many times.

This space is exceptionally difficult, and it's going to take time, money, and a lot of product iterations to really get it right. Nobody really expected that Intel would become a major player overnight, but Intel's complete lack of progress -- at least in phones -- is pretty dismal, given the level of investment here (Intel is spending about as much as Qualcomm is in mobile).

Foolish bottom line
Intel is a world-class company with many key assets, but its execution in phones/tablets has been astonishingly poor. While Intel has a chance to show some meaningful progress at Mobile World Congress, nothing in 2014 will likely be so impressive as to justify Intel's extreme level of investment. If, by 2015, Intel isn't delivering, then investors should assume that there are some very deep and insurmountable structural problems. 

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