In Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM)fiscal first quarter earnings release, the company lowered its full-year financial guidance, driven by weakness in its chip business. In particular, the company noted that its flagship Snapdragon 810 processor would "not be in the design cycle of a large customer's flagship device." It is widely believed this device is the Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) Galaxy S6.
Snapdragon 810 processor is healthy, but Samsung passes on it
A number of press reports have indicated Samsung passed on the Snapdragon 810, because the chip reportedly "overheated" during testing. However, Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf said on the quarterly earnings call Wednesday the Snapdragon 810 is "performing well" and that over 60 products "in the pipeline" would use the chip.
In other words, the chip itself was probably fine, but Samsung nonetheless decided to go with its own applications processor.
Qualcomm rarely talks about future products, especially on earnings calls, but it seemed clear management was keen to reinforce investor confidence in the company's chips. As a result, we now have some interesting details about Qualcomm's next-generation high-end Snapdragon processor.
First, Mollenkopf confirmed that the follow-up to the Snapdragon 810 would feature a custom-designed 64-bit processor core, rather than licensed ARM cores. Next, the company said the new processor would be on "the most advanced process node" and would sample to customers in the second half of 2015.
14/16-nanometer process for the next Snapdragon
I would imagine Qualcomm's statement with respect to "the most advanced process node" signals it will be a 14/16-nanometer FinFET device. After all, Samsung claimed on its earnings call last night that it plans to begin mass production of 14-nanometer chips for a foundry customer in this quarter, and Taiwan Semiconductor (NYSE:TSM) plans to go into mass production of its 16 FinFET+ technology in the third quarter of 2015.
Perhaps the most interesting question here is Qualcomm's sourcing strategy vis-à-vis the FinFET nodes. LinkedIn profiles of Qualcomm engineers show there is design activity on both a "16-nanometer" node (this is Taiwan Seminconductor) and a "14-nanometer" node (this is Samsung), so I believe the next-generation Snapdragon is being designed for both technologies.
The question, then, is how wafer orders for the next Snapdragon chip will be "split." The answer to this question could be almost as interesting as the question of where Apple will build its next-generation A-series processor.
Back to Qualcomm and the Galaxy S6
Qualcomm didn't give too many details as to why it apparently lost the applications processor spot in the Galaxy S6, but management's emphasis that its next Snapdragon product would be built on the "most advanced node" might be a clue. After all, the chip inside the S6 is rumored to be built on Samsung's 14-nanometer FinFET technology, which is more advanced than Taiwan Seminconductor's 20-nanometer technology upon which the 810 is built.
Qualcomm's comments about returning to a custom CPU core for the next chip were also interesting. Even if the Samsung-designed chip in the S6 is actually built on the company's own 20-nanometer process, Samsung might have felt the Snapdragon 810 wasn't sufficiently distinct from its own offerings.
Finally, Samsung has noted that it wants to improve the profitability of its mobile devices division. Using internally designed chips, and not handing over product margin to Qualcomm, might have also been a motivating factor here.