Good News for Qualcomm, Inc. Investors

Qualcomm's win back from Samsung is good news, even if it comes with an asterisk.

Jamal Carnette, CFA
Jamal Carnette, CFA
Oct 6, 2015 at 1:14PM
Technology and Telecom

Source: Qualcomm.

For Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), the last year has been one the company would rather forget. During the past 52 weeks, shares of the company have lost nearly 30% of their value versus a 3% gain for the greater Nasdaq Composite.

To some extent, Qualcomm's underperformance is based upon its operational performance. As a comparison, for the nine months ended June 28, the company reported a small 0.15% increase in revenue, and an operating-income drop of nearly 17% on the back of increased cost of revenues.

During this period, Qualcomm's current flagship Snapdragon 810 chip faced early criticism as being prone to overheating, and the company saw its biggest customer, Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF), drop the chip in favor of its own Exnos chipset it its high-end Galaxy iterations. Additionally, earlier this year, the company paid nearly $1 billion to settle a Chinese-antitrust lawsuit over its patent policies. As a result of these factors, the company recently announced a realignment plan designed to cut $1.4 billion in spending by the end of fiscal 2016.

Needless to say, the company could really use a win. And if the newest reports are true, it could mean Qualcomm's fortunes are changing... slightly.

Welcome back Qualcomm... sort of
According to Korean site ETNews (via 9to5 Google), Samsung is planning to dual source the chipset in the next iteration of its high-end Galaxy S7 unit. For the U.S. and Chinese markets, Samsung will use the next-gen Snapdragon 820 model versus the company continuing to use its Exnos chip to power the device everywhere else, including its home market of South Korea. Although I'm sure Qualcomm wanted its silicon in all units, this is a good win back for the company.

While many have lamented Samsung's fading smartphone sales -- myself included -- it's prudent to note the company is still the largest vendor by units sold. As a result of scale and financial wherewithal, Samsung matters. For Qualcomm, perhaps Samsung's validation is more important than direct Galaxy S7 sales.

Although Qualcomm is considered a premium chip vendor, many analysts are expecting a "good-enough" chip market, where chips from vendors like Mediatek steal market share -- particularly at the low end -- as vendors look to lower their bill of materials to increase their profit margin on each unit. For other, smaller vendors, inclusion in Samsung's Galaxy line is the ultimate sign the problems of the Snapdragon 810 are a thing of the past. 

Dual-sourced chips are a thing. Is it to limit supplier power?
Ironically, Samsung is in this same situation with its relationship with Apple. For Apple's newest iPhone iteration -- the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus -- the company also decided to dual source the fabrication process for its A9 chip. Like the prior iteration, Apple split the work between chipmaker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing and Samsung, with the former reportedly taking nearly 60% of the manufacturing distribution.

That's slightly shocking, considering Samsung's 14-nanometer technology is smaller and more efficient than TSMC's 16-nanometer process. As a result, Apple potentially had to make two internal designs, but there will probably be no noticeable difference in performance between the two.

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But it raises the question: Is this an attempt to limit supplier power? For Apple, that question is perhaps more easily answered, as the relationship with Samsung has been acrimonious as the two are fierce competitors for high-end smartphone sales.

For Samsung, this could be a way to keep Qualcomm's supplier power in check during pricing negotiations. In the event you have the ability to create a substitute product in-house, the product becomes less of a necessity and more of a commodity. In the short term, however, Qualcomm should be happy to win back Samsung in the huge U.S. and Chinese markets.