All right, let's get this out of the way first: mobile processors aren't exactly the sexiest tech in the world. There, I said it. But their significance in the mobile sector -- and possibly your portfolio -- shouldn't be overlooked. So let's take a brief look at which companies have the biggest potential upside in this oft-confusing part of the technology sector.
The big players
In its latest mobile processing report, Strategy Analytics laid out some insightful multi-core mobile processing stats. For the non-tech types, this just means the mobile processor -- the brains of tablets and smartphones -- can have multiple cores that run a device's apps.
What they found was that Qualcomm (QCOM 1.92%) recently overtook Apple (AAPL -0.23%) in smartphone multi-core market share. Qualcomm now holds about 43% of the market, with Apple in second, then Samsung and MediaTek trailing. As of the first half of this year, multi-core processors have reached 66% smartphone saturation.
Qualcomm recently snatched up more market share with its proliferation of Snapdragon processors, which can be found in everything from Samsung's Galaxy S4 to Motorola's X phone and the Google Nexus 7 tablet. But multi-core processors are expanding into low-end devices as well, and by the end of this year should reach about 75% smartphone saturation.
What's most notable from the Strategy Analytics report is the absence of chipmaker NVIDIA (NVDA 2.39%). The company entered the multi-core market early, but pushed back the schedule of the Tegra 4 to focus on Tegra 4i. NVIDIA's Tegra 4 has won spots in HP and Toshiba tablets, but we should see a lot more devices with the chip over the next few months.
Asus just announced a Tegra 4 tablet earlier this month and Chinese vendor Xiaomi -- which recently stole Google's head of product management at Android -- just launched its flagship Android phone with the chip. If that weren't enough, on Monday Microsoft introduced the new Surface 2, powered by the Tegra 4.
So, who wins the war?
Qualcomm probably has the most potential because it's already an industry leader and it has processors in the low- and high-end market range. The company's Snapdragon 200 series chips lacks 4G LTE capability, but works on HSPA+ networks and, most importantly, TD-SCDMA networks. The latter network is the technology standard that China Mobile uses, but isn't readily used elsewhere in the world. China Mobile has more than 700 million subscribers, so making low-cost chips that run on its network has helped Qualcomm make huge gains in the Chinese market, but it hasn't been without competition.
Taiwan-based MediaTek burst onto the chip scene in 2011. That year its chips were shipped in just 10 million smartphones -- this year it's estimated to hit 200 million. The Economist reported last month that on top of Mediatek's growth in China, it's also making big gains in other parts of Asia, the Middle East and some parts of the West. So don't think Qualcomm has the low-end market all wrapped up.
The hidden upside
On top of Qualcomm's major role in mobile processors, investors shouldn't forget that ARM Holdings (ARMH) receives royalties on many mobile processors designs. For example, a UBS analyst said earlier this month said that Apple will pay about $0.60 per iPhone 5s to ARM for use of its 64-bit technology in the phone, which is up from $0.50 per iPhone 5.
Not only will ARM see additional revenue from Apple, but if others follow Apple into the 64-bit realm, ARM could benefit from additional mobile companies using the tech. The more chipmakers incorporate multi-cores into their processors, the more ARM has the potential to make. On news of Apple using ARM for its 64-bit chip, ARM added $1 billion to its market capitalization. So you can see the scope of how lucrative this type of technology can be.
Going forward, investors should look closely at ARM, Qualcomm, and NVIDIA in the mobile processing space. While Qualcomm is the clear leader right now, NVIDIA's latest Tegra chip could bring some fierce competition to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800. Aside from that, ARM is positioned in the space to benefit from Apple's iPhones -- Apple just sold 9 million this past weekend -- as well as royalties from other companies. As for me, I'm partial to Qualcomm's chip leadership, but I'll be keeping an eye on any major wins NVIDIA scores over the next few months.