Earlier this year, ASUS launched a family of low-cost smartphones under the ZenFone brand. The ZenFone 4, ZenFone 5, and ZenFone 6 models featured Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) Clover Trail+ processors and Intel-designed 3G modem solutions. However, Digitimes reports that ASUS launched an updated "4G-enabled" version of the ZenFone 5 on Oct. 28 for the Japanese market.
According to GSMArena, the 4G-capable variant of the ZenFone 5 is powered by a Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) Snapdragon 400, rather than the Intel Atom Z2560 that had powered the original 3G-only version of the phone.
Given how much money Intel has been investing in order to become a credible mobile-chip vendor, and given that Intel has repeatedly highlighted ASUS as a key mobile partner, a reasonable question for Intel investors to ask is...
Why isn't Intel inside this one?
The reason that was typically given for why Intel processors didn't power LTE phones had previously been very simple: Intel didn't have an LTE-capable modem solution, which led to smartphone vendors choosing chips from other companies almost "by default."
However, the Intel XMM 7160, a stand-alone LTE solution, has been shipping commercially since late last year. Additionally, Intel's Atom Z3460 and Z3480 applications processors, which should offer very strong compute and graphics performance relative to the Snapdragon 400, have been launched since the first quarter of 2014, according to Intel's processor database.
The combination of an Intel XMM 7160 LTE modem and the Z3460/Z3480 would have been quite strong for the price points that ASUS is gunning for with these phones (the current ZenFone models sell from between $99 and $199). However, I suspect that the Snapdragon 400, by virtue of a cost-conscious platform design as well as tighter integration, was the more attractive solution to ASUS overall.
Will Intel be inside of the next lineup?
Digitimes alleges that ASUS will launch its next-generation ZenFone lineup next year at CES, and that a 5.5-inch model will be added to the mix. Digitimes also states that ASUS will "increase its models with LTE-support to account for over 40% of its overall smartphone shipments."
With that in mind, an interesting question to ask is whether Intel will power this next-generation lineup or if Qualcomm will win those designs as well.
It is clear at this point that Qualcomm's low-end and mid-range lineup offers integration and platform cost advantages over the current Intel platforms. Intel should be able to remedy this deficiency with its upcoming SoFIA products -- which finally integrate the applications processor with the cellular baseband processor -- but with Intel alleging a "first half of 2015" launch of SoFIA with LTE, it's doubtful that Intel will have product ready in time for the next ZenFones.
So I expect the following: new 3G-only ASUS ZenFones could show up with Intel's SoFIA 3G (which Intel alleges will launch this quarter), but LTE capable models are very likely to use either Qualcomm or MediaTek processors, assuming a launch in early 2015.
Foolish bottom line
Over the long-term, Intel's large investment in mobile is going to need to pay off, and that implies success in the smartphone market. While I don't think that Intel is going to have quite the correct family of products to gain substantial share during the first half of 2015, things should get a fair bit better once SoFIA LTE hits the market.
However, I think that Intel's smartphone story will finally "come together" in 2016. This is when I think Intel will launch its high-end smartphone part codenamed "Broxton," and 2016 is also when Intel has signaled that its first 14-nanometer integrated applications processor and baseband will hit the market.
I don't expect Intel will "dethrone" market-leader Qualcomm come 2016, but I do think by then Intel will be a credible mobile chip contender in both tablets and phones. And that, I believe, would be a very welcome development to most Intel investors.