On Aug. 22, wireless giant Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) announced that it has started sending out samples of its upcoming mobile platform for flagship smartphones. The company has yet to disclose the name of the platform, however.
This upcoming platform, the company says, will be manufactured on "the 7nm process node" (a process node refers to the technology that's used to fabricate the chip). Qualcomm's current flagship smartphone platform, the Snapdragon 845, is manufactured using Samsung's (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) second-generation 10-nanometer technology, known as 10nm LPP.
Qualcomm didn't name the manufacturer of this now-sampling platform, but since Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (NYSE:TSM) (TSMC) is the only company that's currently mass-producing chips on a 7-nanometer technology, it's safe to say that TSMC is building it.
Although the company is withholding full details of the platform until the fourth quarter of 2018, there's enough here that's worth paying attention to. Let's dive in.
Ready for flagship devices in 1H 2019
Qualcomm says that the new platform will be used in "mobile hotspots by the end of 2018," with smartphones based on it arriving in the first half of 2019. This is in line with the company's previous flagship smartphone platform launches, which have typically been announced late in a given year and have shown up in flagship smartphones in the first half of the subsequent year.
The platform, Qualcomm says, "can be paired with the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem, which is expected to be the first 5G-capable mobile platform for premium tier smartphones and other mobile devices." This means that the new platform won't have a 5G modem built into it and will require a companion chip to deliver 5G capability (which Qualcomm will, presumably, charge extra for).
During the company's most recent earnings conference call, Cristiano Amon, the chief of Qualcomm's chip business, said that it "see[s] an opportunity for revenue and margin expansion on the chip business" from the upcoming transition to 5G-based smartphones.
A (temporary) boost for TSMC?
Over the last several product generations, Qualcomm has seemingly relied exclusively on Samsung to manufacture its flagship Snapdragon platforms. The company's 2016 Snapdragon 820 and 821 platforms were built using Samsung's 14nm technology, its 2017 Snapdragon 835 platform was manufactured using Samsung's first-generation 10nm technology (known as 10nm LPE), and this year's Snapdragon 845 is manufactured using Samsung's second-generation 10nm technology, called 10nm LPP. The last time Qualcomm used TSMC for its flagship chips was for the 2015 Snapdragon 810.
The apparent shift from Samsung to TSMC for the manufacture of the next premium Snapdragon processor should lead to a boost in TSMC's revenue at the expense of Samsung. However, it's worth keeping in mind that back in February, Qualcomm put out a press release in which it said the following: "Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., a world leader in advanced semiconductor technology, and Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., a subsidiary of Qualcomm Incorporated (NASDAQ: QCOM), today announced their intention to expand their decade-long foundry relationship into EUV (extreme ultra violet) lithography process technology, including the manufacture of future Qualcomm Snapdragon 5G mobile chipsets using Samsung's 7-nanometer (nm) LPP (Low Power Plus) EUV process technology."
This seems to suggest that while Qualcomm will use TSMC's 7-nanometer technology for its 2019 premium Snapdragon processor, it'll move back to Samsung once its own 7-nanometer technology, known as 7LPP, is ready for mass production.