There has been plenty of chatter that Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) might be able to enter the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone supply chain by providing the iDevice maker with cellular modems for future iPhones. In an article published back in September, I argued that unless Intel built support for the CDMA wireless standard into future stand-alone modems, it wouldn't have a chance of winning the modem spot inside of the iPhone.
With Intel's recent purchase of VIA Telecom's CDMA modem assets, Intel now has all of the pieces that it needs to build modems to satisfy Apple's requirements. Here's what Intel will need to deliver if it wants to win a spot inside of the iPhone.
Get the modem roadmap onto the leading-edge processes; try to gain an edge that way
One of the advantages that Intel routinely touts relative to its competition is its leadership in chip manufacturing technology. This leadership, unfortunately, has not manifested itself to date in Intel's cellular modem offerings. Indeed, Intel's latest modem -- the XMM 7260 -- is built on a third-party 28-nanometer manufacturing process.
To try to gain an edge over Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), Intel needs to be much more aggressive about moving its stand-alone modems to its leading-edge manufacturing technology. At this point, I believe that Intel simply reaching time-to-market parity on a given manufacturing technology would significantly bolster its competitive positioning vis-a-vis Qualcomm.
The XMM 7360 that Intel plans to launch by the end of the year will still be a 28-nanometer part, which means that the chip giant will continue to be at a manufacturing technology disadvantage relative to Qualcomm in stand-alone modems over the next year.
However, with the next modem generation I'd expect Qualcomm to move to foundry 14/16-nanometer processes and Intel to move to its own 14-nanometer technology. This should essentially neutralize the manufacturing advantage that Qualcomm has traditionally enjoyed, helping to make the Intel offering much more competitive on performance/power/cost than its previous offerings have been.
Further close the gap with Qualcomm on features
Intel has done a good job of narrowing the feature gap between its best modem offerings and Qualcomm's, although I believe that Intel remains behind.
For example, the XMM 7360 modem that Intel plans to ship to customers next year supports up to category 10 LTE speeds (450 megabits per second download/100 megabits per second upload), while the Snapdragon X12 modem (the MDM9x45/MDM9x40 series) supports category 12 download (600 megabits per second) and category 13 (150 megabits per second) upload speeds.
The XMM 7360 is certainly no slouch, but Qualcomm's top stand-alone modem offering certainly looks superior to Intel's current best.
In the past, it looked as though Apple was content to stay a generation behind Qualcomm's latest modem offerings. However, given that Apple chose to use the MDM9x35 in the iPhone 6s/6s Plus this year, I suspect that the iDevice maker wants to be as close to the bleeding edge of modem technology as possible.
If this view is correct, then Intel will need to be able to reach feature parity with Qualcomm each modem generation. I suspect that with time and heavy investments, this should be possible. However, doing so isn't likely to be easy.
If Intel succeeds, then this could be a major win for the chipmaker
Only time will tell whether Intel ultimately succeeds in getting its modems into future iPhones; Qualcomm is the leading vendor of cellular modems and successfully displacing this leader in such a high-profile flagship phone isn't likely to be easy.
If Intel is successful, though, it could mean a much-needed revenue boost for the company. I wouldn't count on Intel even having a chance in the coming iPhone generation, but if Intel can successfully integrate the VIA Telecom CDMA assets into the modem that it launches in early 2017, the chip giant may be able to wrestle away some stand-alone modem share from Qualcomm.
Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel and Qualcomm. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Qualcomm. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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