The Market Upside to Qualcomm’s New Modular System Strategy

Qualcomm surprised many when they introduced their newest flagship processor without 5G integrated onto the chip. Instead, Qualcomm is continuing to develop its discreet/thin modem roadmap with the X55 5G modem. This approach has led Qualcomm to now offer customers three models that together complete the solution. The Snapdragon 865 processor, the X55 5G modem, and an RF module that handles all the necessary antenna and radio channels.

The reason this was surprising was in years past, Qualcomm emphasized integration as a critical part of their strategy. Generally, bringing the modem onto the chip during a network transition was an immediate priority. However, this strategy is much more practical and usually better strategically for Qualcomm as it opens the door to more customers and uses cases.

This move is also the effect now prioritizing Apple as a customer has on Qualcomm’s strategy. For those who know Qualcomm’s product history, they have maintained a discrete/thin modem in the LTE portfolio, but it was always a second class citizen to the modem they integrated onto the Snapdragon part. This was a key part of the conflict Apple had with Qualcomm as they did not feel the part they, and only they needed, was being developed with cutting edge premium features.

I got some clarity from Qualcomm executives, and while they hinted that next year would be the year they integrate the premium 5G modem onto the premium Snapdragon SoC, they did say the discrete/thin modem roadmap will continue which was what I expected. Again, this is to keep providing Apple with a premium class stand-alone modem that supports all the flavors of 5G on a worldwide level.

While this, what I am calling the Apple Effect on their supply chain, will end up doing for Qualcomm is to help them serve a broader market. Executives in our discussion recognized that while they still have a focus on integration with their premium components, they recognize that others in the market are integrating as well, and thus they believe both a horizontal/modular approach AND an integrated approach will help them serve more customers and they are correct.

For example, by maintaining a roadmap for the RF module and the modem module separate from the SoC, they can end up winning more PC designs, automotive, AR/VR, and a host of other categories. The need to support Apple with a dedicated roadmap of a premium stand-alone modem is actually a win-win for Qualcomm, which makes this modular approach a smart evolutionary strategy by Qualcomm.

What Qualcomm’s Roadmap Tells Us about the Future
Long-time readers know my mantra that if you follow the semiconductor industry roadmap, you can predict the future. The brains that power our devices open up new capabilities as the companies behind them design them better, smarter, and add new capabilities. What Qualcomm is showing when they release a new process is what new capabilities devices will have over the next year. Often that is more than just base performance but extends into the imaging system, display, new applications, and more. So what does the next year of smartphones have in store? Here are some things to watch for:

  • 8k Video Capture
  • 960 FPS Slo motion
  • 200 MP photos
  • Dolby Vision video capture (which will lead to Dolby vision user generated content)
  • 4k 120 FPS capture
  • Up to five cameras (macro and time of flight being a few of the newer ones to watch)
  • A new class of dedicated gaming smartphones that are console grade experiences
  • 144Hz displays
  • New foldable form factors
  • Better under glass fingerprint sensors
  • Of course 5G

What’s enabled in this new chipset from Qualcomm will be used by competitors large and small to get attention and push the boundaries with premium smartphone experiences. Interestingly in China, Qualcomm has launched quite the processor that will give Chinese OEMs a strong chance to compete against Huawei. But what stands out to me at the moment is how we may see a much wider gap between premium and non-premium smartphone experiences in the Android ecosystem. This may not last for more than a few years, but it seems there is a clear separation between what a mid-tier smartphone will be capable of and what a premium-tier smartphone will be able to do. I’m not sure the impact this has on the market, other than it will create some interesting competitive dynamics.

Having gotten a deeper look at some of the IP Qualcomm has been working on and now commercializing, I am very interested to see what Apple does next fall and how much additional Qualcomm IP they use in next years iPhones, beyond the modem, now that they are officially a Qualcomm licensee for the first time. I’m hoping I’ll know it when I see it.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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