Does Qualcomm Get Another Year Free and Clear?

Will mobile chip giant Qualcomm get through 2014 free and clear?

Jan 22, 2014 at 11:30AM

It is well understood that in the North American markets, Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) chip business has been, for all intents and purposes, unassailable. Its Snapdragon processors (integrated or otherwise) are best-in-class, its Gobi modems are so good that Apple continues to use them exclusively (paired, of course, with Apple's own applications processors), and its push into the tablet market has been a rousing success. The question, now, is whether Qualcomm will get yet another year free-and-clear?

NVIDIA and Intel attacking tablets
The biggest "threat" at the high end comes from both NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) in the tablet market. NVIDIA's upcoming Tegra K1 looks to offer some pretty substantial graphics performance improvements over the already-powerful Tegra 4, meaning that it will be a top contender in Wi-Fi-only, performance-oriented tablets. Intel's Bay Trail has the world's best CPU performance per watt, but lacks graphics leadership and has too bloated a bill of materials to really play (profitably) across the spectrum of tablets.

Intel is providing contra-revenue to offset the too-rich bill-of-materials for Bay Trail, and NVIDIA will be able to compete by having the highest-end, most feature-rich graphics engine and a solid CPU complex. It seems likely that Intel and NVIDIA could take some very real share in this market. Now, Qualcomm isn't the market share leader in tablet chips and it is likely that it, too, will grow its share. However, the assault from Intel and NVIDIA in the higher end could serve to mitigate the potential growth there.

MediaTek is the low-end challenge
In the smartphone market, MediaTek is the fiercest merchant chip vendor. The company's goal is to be the No. 1 smartphone applications processor worldwide. While Qualcomm is still far-and-away the smartphone applications processor leader, MediaTek is growing exceptionally quickly. Further, given that MediaTek is one of the few players in the mobile apps processor market that is growing profitably, this leads to a virtuous cycle whereby the company can continue to aggressively invest in new chips.

What's really interesting is that MediaTek has expressed its intention to develop a "world phone" chip that includes CDMA support -- something that all of Qualcomm's other competitors (such as Intel, NVIDIA, and Broadcom) have actually decided not to include in their own cellular baseband chips. This means that MediaTek will be able to power phones on Verizon's and Sprint's mobile networks, something currently exclusive only to Qualcomm.

Answering the title
Will Qualcomm have a great year in 2014? It seems very likely. While the growth will likely slow down, and the company will see increased competition in both tablets and phones, Qualcomm is still very much in the mobile driver's seat. In 2015, things could get more competitive, leading to margin pressure going forward. However, until then, Qualcomm is set to continue to win. 

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel and Nvidia. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Intel, and Nvidia. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Intel, and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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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