Intel (INTC -2.31%) has long attempted to become a relevant name in the world of wireless chips, but thus far its efforts have been, to put it mildly, less than successful. After billions of investment, the company's share of the smartphone applications processor market is virtually negligible, and although it has invested -- and continues to invest -- heavily in stand-alone cellular modems, it has found little traction with such products as well.
These failings are ultimately due to the fact that the company has been unable to bring to market competitive products in a timely fashion; the mobile market moves very quickly and is extremely competitive, meaning that late and/or underdressed products tend to be very painful commercial flops.
Although I would caution investors not to get too excited about Intel's future in the mobile market, here are three products that would be nice to see at Mobile World Congress 2016 from the chip giant.
No. 1: XMM 7460
If Intel is to have any hope of scoring Apple (AAPL -3.00%) as a major client for its stand-alone cellular modems, it has some serious catching up to do. Based on what Intel and current Apple modem supplier Qualcomm (QCOM -1.62%) are expected to ship in the marketplace this year, Qualcomm is a full two generations ahead in stand-alone modems.
Apple makes premium phones and Intel is going to have to do better if it wants into the iPhone.
At Mobile World Congress, I would like to see Intel formally announce its next-generation XMM 7460 stand-alone modem. This, unlike the XMM 7360, should be built on Intel's leading-edge 14-nanometer chip manufacturing technology, affording it significant power/efficiency benefits over its current offerings.
More importantly, though, Intel may have an opportunity to reach feature parity with the X16 modem. I don't expect the 7460 to make it into commercial devices this year, but if Intel is able to get it into volume production in early 2017 and it ticks all the right checkboxes and performs well, I could see Apple using the 7460 in some of its 2017 iPhones.
There are a lot of "ifs" here and Qualcomm is the best in the world at cellular modems. Apple surely wants a second source, but Intel will need to execute extremely well in order to be that second source. I hope that at Mobile World Congress 2016 we'll see if Intel even has a shot of delivering the goods.
No. 2: SoFIA LTE 2
In late 2013, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich made quite a big deal about the company's first integrated applications processor and modem product family, known as SoFIA.
The initial SoFIA products (SoFIA 3G and SoFIA LTE) were intended to be built on 28-nanometer foundry processes and supposed to be 2015 products. SoFIA 3G indeed made it out to market in 2015 (although this is hardly the stuff of wonders -- a 3G modem integrated with a low-end applications processor has been done to death), but the LTE version was pushed out until the first half of 2016.
According to Krzanich, the second-generation SoFIA LTE, known as SoFIA LTE 2, is expected to launch late in 2016. I would like to see Intel disclose the technical specifications for this part and to offer insight into the kind of design win traction that it is seeing for the part.
No. 3: SoFIA MID
Like SoFIA LTE 2, SoFIA MID is an integrated applications processor and baseband solution in a single chip. However, rather than being aimed at the low end of the phone/tablet market, it's focused squarely on the mid-range.
Crucial to improving Intel's profitability in mobile will be driving its gross profit margins up, and I'd imagine that selling parts into the mid-range of the market is more profitable than the very bottom of the market. At the very least, even if gross margin percentage isn't higher, raw gross margin dollars per unit should be better here.
As with SoFIA LTE 2, I would like to see specifications for this part revealed at Mobile World Congress as well as perhaps some endorsements from key partners that plan to use the part in future smartphone/tablet designs.
The bottom line
As an investor in Intel, I no longer expect much in the way of financial upside in mobile; I have little faith in its ability to deliver competitive products in this space, or to even just deliver products (competitive or otherwise) on schedule.
However, if Intel is able to turn around its mobile efforts, then not only could the losses attributable to its mobile efforts be gone sooner rather than later, but investors could even hold out hope that the business might one day even generate a profit for the company.
At any rate, this is exactly the stuff Intel should have spent time talking about at its most recent investor meeting. Instead, investors are left hoping that management will choose to disclose this information at an industry trade show.