|Analyst Angle: The Qualcomm Snapdragon platform and its dramatic impact on the competitive landscape|
Ron Westfall, Research Director of Silicon, Current Analysis
Story posted: June 23, 2010 - 10:31 am ET
Editor's Note:Welcome to our weekly feature, Analyst Angle. We've collected a group of the industry's leading analysts to give their outlook on the hot topics in the wireless industry.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon platform continues to generate robust industry attention to accompany its steadily expanding customer base. The Snapdragon platform is already incorporated into over 140 device designs that include mobile devices that range from HTC's Droid Incredible and Nexus One smartphones to Huawei's S7 tablet to name a few.
The Snapdragon platform can be viewed as competing within the mobile application processor market segment (also referred to as the mobile multimedia processor market segment). Today the mobile application processor segment includes integrated circuit platforms that typically integrate the application processor core along with additional functions such as baseband modem and wireless connectivity functions onto a single system-on-a-chip; this includes the Qualcomm Snapdragon.
The mobile application processor market also consists of IC platforms that exclude integration of baseband modems (e.g., Texas Instrument's OMAP 4). The mobile application processor platform segment addresses a wide range of mobile devices including smartphones, mobile Internet devices, netbooks and portable media devices. By its nature, the mobile application processor market segment attracts a wide swath of competition from the top-tier mobile silicon players, including Samsung, Apple, Intel and TI.
Due to Qualcomm's historically solid competitive foundation, based heavily on its CDMA chipset royalties, and the burgeoning traction of the Snapdragon platform (in over 140 device designs), it presents a mounting competitive challenge and thus generates the key issue of how the competition can position against the overall Snapdragon platform. At the recent COMPUTEX 2010 show, Qualcomm unveiled the sampling of the third generation of its Snapdragon platform – namely its first dual-CPU Snapdragon chipsets consisting of the MSM8260, MSM8660 and QSD8672 products that feature enhanced dual cores that can run at up to 1.2 GHz and 1.5 GHz respectively, and are targeted at the high-end smartphone market area (the third generation Snapdragon platform is expected to support commercial products by the end of 2010). The new third-generation Snapdragon products complement its first-generation QSD8x50 1GHz core product and the second-generation MSM8x55 and QSD8x50A products with 1 GHz enhanced core, including multimedia optimizations and 1.3 GHz enhanced core respectively.
The Snapdragon platform has been commercially available since Q4 2008 through the QSD8650 and QSD8250 first generation product offerings. From its inception, Qualcomm positioned the Snapdragon platform as an innovative breakthrough offering since it uses the in-house custom developed Scorpion CPU as the core application processor based on the ARMv7-based Cortex-A8 core. This approach has enabled Qualcomm to engineer improvements over standard off-the-shelf ARMv7-based Cortex-A8 processors in areas such as power consumption (e.g., the first Scorpion processor required 150 milliwatts less power consumption at 600 MHz than the non-customized ARM equivalent and so on) as well as optimizing the processor design for the low-power process. As a result, the Snapdragon platform has proven a stalwart in the smartphone and tablet application processor market, as evidenced by the Snapdragon platform's multiple high-profile mobile device OEM selections.
For the first generation Snapdragon QSD82x0 products and the second generation Snapdragon MSM8x55 and QSD8x50A products, Qualcomm shares platform and product metrics in areas such as core processor clock speed/performance, flexible wireless connectivity functions, HD video/3D/display/camera support and operating system versatility. This gives rivals a wide range of product areas to seek selective differentiation against the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform, although Qualcomm is hardly unique in that regard.
The topic of core processor clock speed and performance, for example, represents a straightforward and intuitive product area for rivals to assert competitive differentiation. The Snapdragon platform's first-generation QSD8x50 supports a 1 GHz core processor while the second-generation MSM8x55 and QSD8x50A products support a 1 GHz enhanced core, including multimedia optimizations and a 1.3 GHz enhanced core respectively.
In contrast, Intel asserts that its x86 processor-based Moorestown platform via the Atom Z6xx processor series can support up to 1.5 GHz clock speed for smartphone devices and up to 1.9 GHz clock speed for tablet devices. Such metrics will still match the third generation Snapdragon QSD8672 product that is designed to run dual cores that operate at 1.5 GHz (this product should appear in mobile devices at retail by the end of 2010). This complements Intel's overall efforts to position its Moorestown platform as prime time ready for smartphone technology due to the improvements realized in areas such as power consumption advances in battery life spans (based on 1500 mAh batteries) in support of 1080p/720p video (e..g, up to four hours for 1080p video) and browsing applications as well as multi-fold improvements gained in Java script, Web page, graphics and video performance. This includes up to fourfold Java script performance improvement and at least a doubling of Web page download performance and graphic performance in relation to the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform as well as wielding the industry's only across-the-board support of 1080 HP/MP/BP 30 fps and 720 HP/MP/BP 30 fps video capabilities.
Intel's overall R&D investment and marketing blitz on behalf of the Moorestown platform is certainly targeted at Snapdragon, as well as advancing Intel's longstanding ambition to promote the x86 processor architecture as a viable alternative to the ARM processor architecture that dominates the mobile device silicon market today. Intel hopes to play a more prominent role within the overall mobile device silicon market beyond netbook silicon. There is a bit of irony here as Intel is looking to use the Intel Moorestown platform to attack the ARM-centric Snapdragon platform in Qualcomm's backyard of smartphone and tablet silicon, while Qualcomm is developing the Snapdragon platform to help more directly challenge Intel's prominence within the netbook silicon segment.
Apple, Samsung and TI are Qualcomm rivals that also use the customization of the ARMv7-based Cortex-A8 processor to achieve select advancements over the standard ARM offering. Samsung and Apple currently have a strange bedfellow arrangement that can influence how they position their respective platforms against the Snapdragon platform. Samsung collaborated with Intrinsity in developing and introducing its 45nm-based Hummingbird platform during 2009. In April 2010, it was revealed that Apple acquired Intrinsity in stealth mode to lock up the FastCore intellectual property that was instrumental in realizing the iPad A4 processor's enhancements to standard issue ARM Cortex-8 core processor technology (e.g., achieving 1 Ghz clock speed on a 45nm process).
Through the acquisition, Apple can promote that its A4 processor development efforts are dedicated exclusively to the support of Apple products such as the iPad and iPhone, and the company can avoid the dissipation of processor engineering resources that its rivals, such as Qualcomm, are obliged to perform through the open-ended support of multiple OEM products.
Samsung should look to further elucidate its plans to license the Hummingbird technology to other mobile device vendors and what if any impact this has on its Apple relationship. The Apple acquisition of Intrinsity does not change the fact that Apple's A4 technology remains based on Samsung's 45nm SoC technology and Samsung continues to have access and wield the Hummingbird IP gained from its joint collaboration with Intrinsity prior to the Apple acquisition of Intrinsity.
Samsung continues to register significant product development and marketing advances with its Hummingbird SC5PC110 processor. The Hummingbird S5PC110 runs the Samsung Galaxy S smartphone, which Samsung asserts will launch in an astonishing 110 countries. One area the Samsung can assert clear product differentiation against Qualcomm is in the area of 3D graphics. The S5PC110 processor can scale up to support 90 million triangles per second. In contrast, the Qualcomm QSD8650 delivers only 22 million triangles per second while the pending QSD8672 will do up to 80 million triangles per second. Additionally, in the related area of 2D graphics rendering, Samsung's S5PC110 product can support up to one billion pixels per second while Qualcomm's QSD8650 supports only 133 million pixels per second and the upcoming QSD8672 product still comes up short against Samsung with an improved 500 million pixels per second.
TI's OMAP 4 platform using the OMAP4440 processor is slated to support mobile device products that will hit retail in late 2010/early 2011. The OMAP processor series is already found in well-known mobile handset products such as the Nokia N-series, the Motorola Droid, and the Palm Pre. However, OMAP 4 dual core clock speeds are limited to just 1 GHz, and that's for a product that is not yet in generally available mobile products. In this regard, OMAP 4 only ties the Qualcomm Snapdragon's first generation 1 GHz product and trails both the second and third generation 1.2 GHz/1.5GHz products.
However, TI has already staked out a competitive position against Qualcomm in this area showing how apples-to-apples comparisons can prove dicey at times in the mobile silicon space. TI asserts that the OMAP 4 can deliver improved resolution display and still image metrics in relation to the Snapdragon platform, despite the core processor clock speed differentials. For example, the OMAP 4 can deliver 20-megapixel camera support while the QSD8x50 product can only handle 12-megapixel cameras. Moreover, TI advocates the OMAP 4 platform will prove more flexible in hardware support of future video codecs in relation to the Snapdragon platform. TI will also invoke that its OMAP4440 processor will use the ARM Cortex-9 architecture, which can yield performance improvements over ARM Cortex-A8 products (up to 30% according to ARM) and more flexible dual core power management arrangements.
Overall the most serious long-term competitive threats to the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform within the smartphone and tablet application processor market will prove to be the major mobile silicon players such as Samsung, Apple and TI, as well as Intel, who already possess competitive application processor platforms targeted specifically at smartphone, MID and tablet products. Mobile silicon rivals such as Marvell, Freescale, Nvidia and ST-Ericsson all sport viable mobile application processor platforms but need to prove they can move the market needle more within the mobile application processor market segment to mount a serious challenge to Qualcomm in the evolving smartphone/tablet silicon market segment. Marvell and Freescale have achieved market distinction within the eReader niche, for example, but are not able to match the Snapdragon's presence in over 140 device design wins.
Samsung, Apple, Intel and TI all possess the product differentiators in areas such as core processor clock speed/performance, power consumption metrics, and HD video/3D/display/camera video performance and the global channels to challenge the Snapdragon's early market prominence in this area into the foreseeable future.
Ron Westfall is the Research Director of Silicon at Current Analysis and is responsible for tracking the evolution and the competitive landscape within the global chipset market, including mobile device chipsets. Westfall brings over twelve years of analytical experience to the overall telecommunications and silicon market, including specialization in mobile silicon, regulatory issues, and telecom infrastructure technologies. Contact Westfall at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @sirronsilicon.