Is Qualcomm losing its edge in the application processor market?

Qualcomm's Snapdragon dragon
Qualcomm's Snapdragon dragon

Qualcomm, it seems, is in a hurry. The biggest standalone system-on-chip manufacturer has unveiled two new solutions today, the 808 and the 810, which will be available at the beginning of 2015 in smartphones, possibly at CES 2015, almost certainly at the next MWC.

That's the company's seventh and eight chipset over the past four months. Qualcomm launched the 64-bit Snapdragon 410 in December, quickly followed by the Snapdragon 602A in January, the Snapdragon 610, 615, 801 and 805 in February.

A massive step forward

Why so many SKUs over such a short period? One may argue that the company has been caught short by what looks like a rapid transition from 32-bit to 64-bit (dismissed by its own CMO) coupled with an aggressive ramp-up from some of its competitors, especially Mediatek.

And while Qualcomm had, for long, pride itself with developing its own hardware (it licenses ARM's instruction set and owns its own graphics IP), it looks like the rapidly changing AP (Application Processor) market is causing it to change its strategy.

For years, it was common for Qualcomm to use standard ARM cores for entry level system-on-chip. The company preferred to use its own Krait architecture for mid-range and high-end models as a differentiator.

This has changed over the past few months with Qualcomm using the ARM's standard Cortex-A53 and A57 cores, both of which are 64-bit.

What's more, the latest Snapdragon 808 and 810 SoCs use both Cortex-A53 and Cortex-A57 in what looks like a big.LITTLE design.

Agility in action

At CES 2013, Michelle Leyden-Li, Senior Director of Marketing, QCT Division at Qualcomm, told me that the company was not convinced by it, adding that each component on the system-on-chip needed to be independently optimised for maximum power efficiency.

Developing your own technology takes time and resources, which explains why Qualcomm has yet to release its first 64-bit Krait.

For now, it appears that Qualcomm has taken a (temporary) shortcut that allows it to offer 64-bit capabilities to its customers, preventing them from adopting rival solutions.

Anand Chandrasekher's dig at Apple's 64-bit A7 processor back in October 2013 is a possible indicator that the company didn't believe that 64-bit was going to be big in 2014. It may have had to reconsider its strategy after learning that Mediatek was going to launch 64-bit solutions.

Qualcomm has been realistic (and ruthlessly efficient) and rather than sitting idle and watching the market transition rapidly to 64-bit, it bit the bullet even if it meant swallowing its pride and opt for ARM's standard cores.

It also hints at a possible change of direction for Qualcomm. The CPU after all is one of 16 pieces of a system-on-chip (like the Snapdragon 810) and Qualcomm has candidates for almost all of them.

So even if it were to give up CPU, it would still be able to differentiate its SoCs thanks to the other components.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.