The more I think about Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC), the more I can’t help feeling truly pessimistic about the company. This organization is truly running a marathon, but in the world of technology, where even smaller rivals are sprinting ahead in the race, Intel’s efforts might be too slow to produce results.
The news that Altera, a market heavyweight that designs chips for phone-networking equipment, is now an Intel customer marks a good step ahead on the road to recovery. But Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC) still has way too much catching up to do.
Intel had already clarified its plans to manufacture chips for other customers way back in 2010. However, Altera is the only large, significant customer announced since then. And the Altera agreement has been drawn up in such a way that Intel can’t even recruit any more big customers for the next 12 years.
Some of you may say that given its huge cash stockpile, Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC) doesn’t need to find any new buyers. But maintaining fabrication plants -- aka fabs -- or foundries on its own may be a strain on Intel in the near future. After all, fabs have huge maintenance costs, and they need customers to offset that concern. That's why Intel investors have every right to feel worried.
The high cost of running fabs is the primary reason why smaller rivals such as QUALCOMM, Inc. (NASDAQ:QCOM) buy chips from contract manufacturers such as Taiwan Semiconductor Mfg. Co. Ltd. (ADR) (NYSE:TSM). Qualcomm is a formidable competitor, with customers like Apple and Samsung on its books.
Qualcomm currently dominates the mobile processor market; its customers encompass 90% of the world’s handset manufacturers . That places Qualcomm in a win-win situation, as it leverages its popularity in more ways than one. On one hand, Qualcomm is banking on the huge 3G penetration gap and the consequent need for 3G-enabled smartphones in emerging nations. On the other, it knows it can cash in on the expected wave of handsets to support the next-generation 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology in the US and other developed nations. And Qualcomm doesn’t even have to worry about maintaining its own fabs.
Qualcomm’s already there in the field of LTE, while Intel’s still a relative newbie. The latter’s global share of the handset chip market still stands at less than 1%, as per data from research firm Strategy Analytics.
True, Intel's newly launched Clover Trail+ processor is a good proposition for phone and tablet makers, given its stunning graphics capabilities and low power consumption -- the latter being an area Intel hasn’t been traditionally good at. But that still doesn’t discount the fact that Clover Trail+'s LTE capability comes in the form of an optional add-on modem only. Intel’s failure to provide an integrated LTE solution might make it lose out to similar integrated options, such as the upcoming Snapdragon 800 processors from Qualcomm or the Tegra 4i range from peer NVIDIA Corporation (NASDAQ:NVDA).
Furthermore, an integrated LTE solution draws less power as well. And Clover Trail+ processors will not find their way into mobile devices anytime before the end of this year. I’m sure Intel's rivals won't be sitting still in the meantime.