Can Intel Really Compete With Qualcomm In Mobile?

  • Qualcomm investors have been unnerved by news that Intel will win some iPhone 7 business from Apple.
  • Qualcomm, however, still maintains a sizable lead over Intel in cellular basebands and app processors.
  • Intel recently cut its mobile chip budget and is unlikely to become a threat to Qualcomm which focuses solely on this field.

Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) stock is slipping lower after Barclays downgraded the stock from Overweight to Equal weight saying the company would have a harder road ahead now that Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) is likely to win some iPhone 7 business from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). The downgrade comes a few weeks after reports emerged that Intel might clinch a deal to supply 30%-40% of iPhone 7 baseband modems. If the report turns out to be accurate, this will mark the first time that Intel wins substantial mobile chip business from Apple. The Barclays downgrade appears to be a contrarian call since Qualcomm stock has been getting a lot of Wall Street love lately.

And there is a good chance that Intel might actually win the deal. A 2015 report by VentureBeat had said that Apple would use Intel’s XMM 7360 4G modems in its lower-end smartphones mainly aimed at the emerging markets in Latin America and Asia in 2016. The site even followed up on the story by reporting that Intel had hired more than 1,000 people to design the said modem and that Apple was interested in Intel developing a SoC (System-on-a-Chip) that will pair up an A-series app processor with a 4G modem.

So it’s fair to conclude that Intel has upended Qualcomm, at least, this once. Intel has in the past been willing to enter into contra-revenue arrangements with mobile chip manufacturers to use its mobile chips. It's not yet clear if Intel has made similar concessions with Apple though it cannot be ruled out. Intel might have won the battle but is still far from winning the mobile war against Qualcomm.

Qualcomm still leads in cellular basebands by quite a wide margin. For instance, Intel’s XMM 7360 can manage peak download speeds of 450Gbps compared to 1Gbps for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X16. For Intel to compete favorably with Qualcomm especially in the higher end of the market where Apple belongs, it will not only have to develop best-in-class app processors but also the best baseband modems. Intel can conceivably achieve this by leveraging its manufacturing technologies to produce cost-effective solutions. This is one key advantage that Intel bears over Qualcomm since Qualcomm does not have its own fabs.

But the big problem is that this might not be the direction that Intel is interested in taking. After trying unsuccessfully to carve itself a respectable niche in the mobile chip business, Intel finally seems to have thrown in the towel and given up trying to steal market share from the likes of Qualcomm and MediaTek. Intel currently seems more interested in simply maintaining a presence in the mobile space. In fact, Intel has indicated that it will cut down its mobile chip spending by about $1B per year and will instead concentrate on more promising fields including the Data Center and Internet of Things.

Intel is a highly diversified semiconductor chip manufacturer with interests in not less than eight different fields. Mobile just happens to be one of those. It’s only natural that the company shifts its resources to more promising segments. Meanwhile, Qualcomm is a predominantly mobile chip company, manufacturing MSM chips and licensing LTE technology to smartphone manufacturers. Qualcomm devotes most of its R&D spending to developing best-in-class products for high-end manufacturers like Apple and Samsung Electronics (OTC:SSNLF).

In the final analysis, Qualcomm is not very reliant on Apple to drive its top line. CLSA’s Srini Pajjuri estimates that Qualcomm could lose ~ 4% of its revenue and 2% of earnings in 2016 if Apple hands over the contract to Intel. The ramp on Intel’s revenue won’t be much either, with Pajjuri estimating that the new business might bring in ~2% of Intel’s revenue in 2016.

Ultimately Intel does not seem ideally positioned to fight for high stakes in the mobile market against the likes of Qualcomm. Unless Intel effects a 180-degree turnaround on its mobile strategy, it’s unlikely to become much of a threat to Qualcomm.

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