Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) announced its next generation stand-alone LTE-Advanced cellular modem, the MDM9x45 on Nov. 19. The part looks to offer an impressive set of features, including category 10 LTE-Advanced and support for LTE broadcast. Interestingly enough, though, the company's press release states that the part is built on a 20-nanometer manufacturing technology -- not a 14/16-nanometer technology.
This, unsurprisingly enough, has some pretty interesting implications.
Here's how Qualcomm's modem/apps processor road map works
Over the last several generations there has been a clear trend with respect to when Qualcomm rolls out products based on leading-edge manufacturing and cellular technologies. First it brings out a stand-alone cellular modem with the best features it has to offer on the most advanced manufacturing technology available.
After it releases the advanced stand-alone modem, it brings to market integrated products that incorporate leading-edge applications processors as well as the cellular baseband that was available previously in stand-alone form.
As a concrete example, Qualcomm announced the MDM9x35 20-nanometer category 6 LTE-Advanced modem in November 2013 and was first commercially deployed in the Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) Galaxy S5 LTE-A Broadband by June 2014. The Snapdragon 808 and 810 applications processors, Qualcomm's first 20-nanometer designs, are expected to roll out next year, with an enhanced version of the MDM9x35 (per AnandTech) integrated.
We'll probably see the same thing here
I'm expecting that we'll see the same thing with the MDM9x45. The part will probably show up in next generation phones by mid-next year -- I certainly expect the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 to feature this modem -- and then the modem itself is likely to get integrated into Qualcomm's next set of applications processors.
If I'm correct about this, then this would imply that Qualcomm will release another generation of high-end applications processors based on the 20-nanometer manufacturing technology. Given that Qualcomm has signaled that the Snapdragon 808 and Snapdragon 810 chips will be what it uses to compete during 2015, I'm guessing that the 2016 Snapdragon lineup may also be 20-nanometer devices.
When do we see Qualcomm adopt 14/16-nanometer?
If the above assumptions hold true, and if historical patterns play out, then I'd expect that in November 2015, Qualcomm will announce a 14/16-nanometer MDM9x55 stand-alone cellular solution for deployment in devices by the first half of 2016. This would then imply an announcement of 14/16-nanometer Snapdragon processors in early 2016 for deployments either in late 2016 or early 2017.
Would this be a surprise?
Quite frankly, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the first 14/16-nanometer mobile chips from Qualcomm come out in the timeframe stated above. TSMC (NYSE:TSM), the world's leading chip foundry, signaled that volume production on its 16-nanometer FinFET+ process would not begin until early Q3.
I would imagine, as we saw with 20-nanometer, that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) will hog the initial supply of 14/16-nanometer throughout the industry for its latest iPhone and iPad chips. After that, it'd make sense for Qualcomm to work out the kinks with its smaller die size cellular baseband and then once the yield learning has taken place, bring to bear a much larger die size integrated applications processor on whatever FinFET processes it is using.