The smartphone boom of the 2010s is getting a second wind from the upgrade cycle to 5G. However, "mobile computing" is taking on new meaning, and big changes are coming for the PC world as a result. During its latest earnings update, mobile chip leader Qualcomm (QCOM 0.27%) mentioned Project Volterra, a collaboration with Microsoft (MSFT 2.19%) announced earlier in 2022.
Maybe you missed this development. It received little in the way of news coverage or fanfare. But this could be a really big deal, and is a top reason why Qualcomm could be a monster stock in the years ahead.
What is Project Volterra?
Amidst its busy Build 2022 conference back in May, Microsoft unveiled a new computing device dubbed Project Volterra. The hardware will be available as a development kit later in 2022, and was built by none other than Qualcomm using its Snapdragon mobile platform. Included in the specs for Project Volterra is Qualcomm's neural processing chips to help accelerate AI development.
Let's break all this down into simple terms. Basically, Microsoft's Project Volterra is a new type of PC available to engineers and software developers, with an expected commercial launch by the end of 2023. What's special about these new PCs? The intent is to bring the features consumers love about their smartphones and tablets and apply them to desktops and laptops. Think mobile apps, powerful computing performance, and ultra-efficient energy consumption.
Perhaps this sounds familiar. It is. This is essentially what Apple has been doing with its M-series chips for its Mac computers, to rave reviews. Essentially the same experience on an iPhone can now be had (in a larger format, of course) via a Mac. Apple pulled this off by tapping ARM (that's the chip design licensor Nvidia was attempting to acquire) to supersize its iPhone processors for its computers. Basically, we are witnessing the convergence of the mobile and traditional PC worlds.
Microsoft, the leader in PC operating systems, needed to respond. And who better to help than Qualcomm? Qualcomm's silicon can be found all over the Android ecosystem (that's the smartphone and tablet operating system leader, headed up by Alphabet. Its efficient and powerful chips combine a processor and graphics with new circuitry that can handle on-device AI. It's time to supersize these designs so that PCs can catch up with Apple. If all goes as planned, consumers will have a new personal computer option to choose from next year, one that bridges the gap between traditional PCs and the efficient user experience of Android smartphones and tablets.
How big could this be for Qualcomm?
Ok, so there are a lot of moving parts here, but suffice it to say this could be a really big deal for Qualcomm. This project has been brewing for years. In fact, the company acquired a start-up ARM-based chip designer called NUVIA in early 2021 to help accelerate these efforts. Along the way, Qualcomm has made a little headway and has started to show up in some 2-in-1 laptops (like the Microsoft Surface, which is essentially a laptop that converts to a tablet).
However, for those interested in the computing power that comes with a more traditional PC or laptop, the processor choices essentially begin and end with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. And if high-end graphics (for gaming or professional visualization work) are what you're after, those same desktops and laptops almost certainly feature an AMD or Nvidia GPU (graphics processing unit).
Could Qualcomm become a new top alternative on this front? It certainly could, especially if the company's mobile designs adapted for PC boast some of the performance levels Apple's M-series chips for Mac have been showing off. And between the Intel-AMD-Nvidia trifecta of processor and GPU dominance in PC, there's tens of billions of dollars in annual spending up for grabs. Even for a chip behemoth like Qualcomm, scooping up some of that business would be significant. No wonder Nvidia wanted to head this off with the attempted (but failed) acquisition of ARM. It wanted a cut of the coming pivot in PC hardware technology by getting its hands on ARM's designs -- the very designs that both Apple and Qualcomm are using to lead the revolution.
Of course, any financial results from this development are a ways off for Qualcomm. For now, the mobile upgrade cycle to 5G is what's propelling the company higher. But for the smartest shareholders looking for what's next in Qualcomm's saga, the convergence of PC with mobile could certainly be it.