[News] Sluggish Mobile Market, Reports of Significant Price Reduction in Qualcomm Chips

According to a report by Taiwan’s Economic Daily, the revival of the smartphone market has fallen short of expectations. Industry sources have indicated that in order to stimulate customer demand and expedite inventory clearance, Qualcomm has recently initiated a price war, targeting mid- to- low-range 5G smartphone chips. The price reduction is substantial, ranging from 10% to 20%. It is anticipated that Qualcomm’s price reduction strategy will extend into the fourth quarter.

The consumer electronics market began to slump in the fourth quarter of last year. Downstream inventory levels began to visibly dissipate in the first half of this year, gradually returning to normal. There was optimism in the market that the Chinese smartphone market would improve in the second half of this year, and there were even reports of a slight resurgence in Qualcomm’s chip shipments during the second quarter.

However, even after China’s 618 shopping festival, the downturn in the consumer electronics market has not shown significant improvement. This has led to Qualcomm’s inventory levels rising to nearly two quarters’ worth.

With low order visibility and high inventory, the supply chain has reported that Qualcomm has recently decided to initiate a price war, primarily focusing on the mid- to low-range market segment. If the pace of inventory clearance falls short of expectations, there is a possibility of further intensifying the price reduction efforts.

Industry analysts suggest that Qualcomm’s extensive price cuts underscore the challenging situation in the mid- to low-range 5G smartphone market, where demand has been lackluster.

(Photo credit: Qualcomm)


Beyond the SoC Paradigm: Where Are Next-Gen Mobile AI Chips Going to Land?

The excitement surrounding ChatGPT has sparked a new era in generative AI. This fresh technological whirlwind is revolutionizing everything, from cloud-based AI servers all the way down to edge-computing in smartphones.

Given that generative AI has enormous potential to foster new applications and boost user productivity, smartphones have unsurprisingly become a crucial vehicle for AI tech. Even though the computational power of an end device isn’t on par with the cloud, it has the double benefit of reducing the overall cost of computation and protecting user privacy. This is primarily why smartphone OEMs started using AI chips to explore and implement new features a few years ago.

However, Oppo’s recent decision to shut down its chip design company, Zheku, casted some doubts on the future of smartphone OEMs’ self-developed chips, bringing the smartphone AI chip market into focus.

Pressing Needs to Speed Up AI Chips Iterations

The industry’s current approach to running generative AI models on end devices involves two-pronged approaches: software efforts focus on reducing the size of the models to lessen the burden and energy consumption of chips, while the hardware side is all about increasing computational power and optimizing energy use through process shrinkage and architectural upgrades.

IC design houses, like Qualcomm with its Snapdragon8 Gen.2, are now hurrying to develop SoC products that are capable of running these generative AI base models.
Here’s the tricky part though: models are constantly evolving at a pace far exceeding the SoC development cycle – with updates like GPT occurring every six months. This gap between hardware iterations and new AI model advancements might only get wider, making the rapid expansion of computational requirements the major pain point that hardware solution providers need to address.

Top-tier OEMs pioneering Add-on AI Accelerators

It’s clear that in this race for AI computational power, the past reliance on SoCs is being challenged. Top-tier smartphone OEMs are no longer merely depending on standard products from SoC suppliers. Instead, they’re aggressively adopting AI accelerator chips to fill the computational gap.

The approaches of integrating and add-on AI accelerator were first seen in 2017:

  • Integrated: This strategy is represented by Huawei’s Kirin970 and Apple’s A11 Bionic, which incorporated an AI engine within SoC.
  • Add-on: Initially implemented by Google Pixel 2, which used a custom Pixel Visual Core chip alongside Snapdragon 835. It wasn’t until the 2021 Pixel 6 series, which introduced Google’s self-developed Tensor SoC, that the acceleration unit was directly integrated into the Tensor.

Clearly, OEMs with self-developing SoC+ capabilities usually embed their models into AI accelerators at the design stage. This hardware-software synergy supplies the required computing power for specific AI scenarios.

New Strategic Models on the Rise

For OEMs without self-development capabilities, the hefty cost of SoC development keeps them reliant on chip manufacturers’ SoC iterations. Yet, they’re also applying new strategies within the supply chain to keep pace with swift changes.

Here’s the interesting part – brands are leveraging simpler specialized chips to boost AI-enabled applications, making standalone ICs like ISPs(Image Signal Processors) pivotal for new features of photography and display. Meanwhile, we’re also seeing potential advancements in the field of productivity tools – from voice assistants to photo editing – where the implementation of small-scale ASICs is seriously being considered to fulfill computational demands.

From Xiaomi’s collaboration with Altek and Vivo’s joint effort with Novatek to develop ISPs, the future looks bright for ASIC development, opening up opportunities for small-scale IC design and IP service providers.

Responding to the trend, SoC leader MediaTek is embracing an open 5G architecture strategy for market expansion through licensing and custom services. However, there’s speculation about OEMs possibly replacing MediaTek’s standard IP with self-developed ones for deeper product differentiation.

Looking at this, it’s clear that the battle of AI chips continues with no winning strategy for speeding up smartphone AI chip product iteration.

Considering the substantial resources required for chip development and the saturation of the smartphone market, maintaining chip-related strategies adds a layer of uncertainty for OEMs.With Oppo’s move to discontinue its chip R&D, other brands like Vivo and Xiaomi are likely reconsidering their game plans. The future, therefore, warrants close watch.

Read more:

AI Sparks a Revolution Up In the Cloud


Amid Rising Volume and Pricing, Top 10 IC Design Companies Post 2021 Revenue Topping US$100 Billion

According to TrendForce research, due to the vigorous stocking of various terminal applications causing a shortage of wafers in 2021, the global IC industry was severely undersupplied. This, coupled with spiking chip prices, boosted the 2021 revenue of the global top ten IC design companies to US$127.4 billion, or 48% YoY.

TrendForce further indicates three major disparities from the 2020 ranking. First, NVIDIA surpassed Broadcom to take the second position. Second, Taiwanese companies Novatek and Realtek rose to sixth and eighth place, respectively. Originally ranked tenth, Dialog was replaced at this position by Himax after Dialog was acquired by IDM giant Renesas.

Qualcomm continues its reign as number one in the world, primarily due to 51% and 63% growth YoY in sales of mobile phone SoC (System on Chip) and IoT chips, respectively. The addition of diversified development in its RF and automotive chip businesses was key to a 51% increase in revenue. NVIDIA implemented the integration of software and hardware, demonstrating its ambitions in creating a “comprehensive computing platform.” Driven by the annual growth of gaming graphics card and data center revenue at 64% and 59%, respectively, NVIDIA successfully climbed to second place. Broadcom benefited from the stable sales performance of network chips, broadband communication chips, and storage and bridging chips, with revenue growing 18% YoY. AMD’s computer and graphics revenue grew by 45% YoY due to strong sales of the Ryzen CPU and Radeon GPU and rising average selling price. Coupled with accelerating demand from cloud companies, the annual revenue of AMD’s enterprise, embedded, and semi-customized divisions increased by 113%, driving annual growth of total revenue to 68%.

In terms of Taiwanese firms, MediaTek’s strategy of focusing on mobile phone SoC has produced miraculous results. Benefiting from an increase in 5G penetration, the sales performance of MediaTek’s mobile phone product portfolio surged by 93% and the company has committed to increasing the proportion of high-end product portfolios, resulting in 61% annual revenue growth. Novatek’s two major product lines of SoC and display driver IC have both grown significantly. Due to improved product specifications, increased shipments, and beneficial pricing gains, revenue grew by 79% YoY, the highest among the top ten. Realtek has been driven by strong demand for Netcom and commercial notebook products, while the performance of audio and Bluetooth chips remains quite stable, conferring an annual revenue growth of 43%. Himax joins the top ten ranking for the first time in 2021. Due to significant annual revenue growth in large-sized and medium/small-sized driver IC of 65% and 87%, respectively, and the successful introduction of driver IC into automotive panels, total revenue exceeded US$1.5 billion, or 74% YoY.

Looking forward to 2022, after AMD completes the acquisition of Xilinx, other players will fill out the rankings. In the broader picture, intensifying demand for high-specification products such as high-performance computing, Netcom, high-speed transmission, servers, automotive, and industrial applications will create good business opportunities for IC design companies and drive overall revenue growth. However, terminal system manufacturers face the correction of component mismatch issues. In addition, growing foundry costs, intensifying geopolitical conflicts, and rising inflation will all be detrimental to global economic growth and may impact an already weakened consumer electronics market. These are the challenges IC design companies face in 2022 and by what means can product sales momentum be maintained within existing production capacity, R&D efficacy strengthened, and chip specifications upgraded, will become the primary focus of development in 2022.


8-inch Wafer Capacity Remains Tight, Shortages Expected to Ease in 2H23, Says TrendForce

From 2020 to 2025, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12-inch equivalent wafer capacity at the world’s top ten foundries will be approximately 10% with the majority of these companies focusing on 12-inch capacity expansion, which will see a CAGR of approximately 13.2%, according to TrendForce’s research. In terms of 8-inch wafers, due to factors such as difficult to obtain equipment and whether capacity expansion is cost-effective, most fabs can only expand production slightly by means of capacity optimization, equating to a CAGR of only 3.3%. In terms of demand, the products primarily derived from 8-inch wafers, PMIC and Power Discrete, are driven by demand for electric vehicles, 5G smartphones, and servers. Stocking momentum has not fallen off, resulting in a serious shortage of 8-inch wafer production capacity that has festered since 2H19. Therefore, in order to mitigate competition for 8-inch capacity, a trend of shifting certain products to 12-inch production has gradually emerged. However, if shortages in overall 8-inch capacity is to be effectively alleviated, it is still necessary to wait for a large number of mainstream products to migrate to 12-inch production. The timeframe for this migration is estimated to be close to 2H23 into 2024.

PMIC and Audio Codec gradually transferred to 12-inch production, alleviating shortage of 8-inch production capacity

At present, mainstream products produced using 8-inch wafers include large-sized panel Driver IC, CIS, MCU, PMIC, Power Discrete (including MOSFET, IGBT), Fingerprint, Touch IC, and Audio Codec. Among them, there are plans to gradually migrate Audio Codec and some more severely backordered PMICs to the 12-inch process.

In terms of PMICs, other than certain PMICs used in Apple iPhones already manufactured at 12-inch 55nm, most mainstream PMIC processes are still at 8-inch 0.18-0.11μm. Burdened with the long-term supply shortage, IC design companies including Mediatek, Qualcomm, and Richtek have successively planned to transfer some PMICs to 12-inch 90/55nm production. However, since product process conversion requires time-consuming development and verification and total current production capacity of the 90/55nm BCD process is limited, short term relief to 8-inch production capacity remains small. Effective relief is expected in 2024 when large swathes of mainstream products migrate to 12-inch production.

In terms of Audio Codec, Audio Codecs for laptops are primarily manufactured on 8-inch wafers, and Realtek is the main supplier. In the 1H21, the squeeze on capacity delayed lead times which affected notebook computers shipments. Although the stocking efforts of certain tier1 customers proceeded smoothly in the second half of the year, these products remained difficult to obtain for some small and medium-sized customers. At present, Realtek has partnered with Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) to transfer the process development of laptop Audio Codecs from 8-inch to 12-inch 55nm. Mass production is forecast for mid-2022 and is expected to improve Audio Codec supply.

In addition to PMIC/Power Discrete, another mainstream product derived from 8-inch manufacturers is the large-sized panel Driver IC. Although most fabs still manufacture 8-inch wafers, Nexchip provides a 12-inch 0.11-0.15μm process technology used to produce large-sized Driver ICs. As production capacity at Nexchip grows rapidly, the supply of this product has been quite smooth. However, TrendForce believes that this is a special case. Mainstream large-sized Driver ICs are still manufactured on 8-inch wafers and there is no trend to switch to 12-inch wafers.

For more information on reports and market data from TrendForce’s Department of Semiconductor Research, please click here, or email Ms. Latte Chung from the Sales Department at lattechung@trendforce.com


Wi-Fi 6/6e Expected to Become Mainstream Technology with Close to 60% Market Share in 2022, Says TrendForce

Exponential demand growth for remote and unmanned terminals in smart home, logistics, manufacturing and other end-user applications has driven iterative updates in Wi-Fi technology. Among the current generations of technologies, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) is mainstream while Wi-Fi 6 and 6E (802.11ax) are at promotional stages, according to TrendForce’s investigations. In order to meet the connection requirements of industry concepts such as the Metaverse, many major manufacturers have trained their focus on the faster and more stable next generation 802.11be Wi-Fi standard amendment, commonly known as Wi-Fi 7. Considering technical characteristics, maturity, and product certification status, Wi-Fi 6 and 6E are expected to surpass Wi-Fi 5 to become mainstream technology in 2022, with global market share expected to reach 58%.

TrendForce states, in common residential applications of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6E supports 6GHz and expands bandwidth by at least 1200MHz, delivering higher efficiency, throughput, and security than Wi-Fi 6, and can optimize remote work, VR/AR, and other user experiences. Moreover, in terms of the vertical IoT sector with the highest output value, smart manufacturing still mostly employs Ethernet and 4G/5G mobile networks as the central communication technologies in current smart factories. However, as early as 2019, major British aerospace equipment manufacturer, Mettis Aerospace, and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) conducted phased testing of the practicality of Wi-Fi 6 in factories, and they believe that Wi-Fi 6 can be widely adopted for manufacturing.

Market not yet mature, practical application of Wi-Fi 7 must wait until the end of 2023 at the earliest

TrendForce believes that the introduction of Industry 4.0 technology tools will become more common and the degree of digitalization within companies will increase in the post-pandemic era, with 5G and Wi-Fi expected to bring complementary and synergistic effects to the manufacturing field. The primary reason for this is that 5G characteristics include wide connection, large bandwidth, and low latency. In addition, multi-access edge computing (MEC) and standalone (SA) network slicing can improve computing power and flexibility, all of which significantly upgrade smart manufacturing tools. Although the transmission range of Wi-Fi is small, it resists interference and enhances the physical penetration of wireless signals at smart manufacturing locations. Wi-Fi also reduces the cost of 5G distributed antennas and small base stations while extending communications range and improving equipment battery life.

Looking forward to next generation Wi-Fi 7, companies such as MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Broadcom, are already laying the groundwork for their forays into this standard. TrendForce believes, even though focus is currently shifting to Wi-Fi 7, scheduled application of Wi-Fi 7 is expected to fall between the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024. Challenges remain in terms of overall development and issues such as equipment investment, spectrum usage, deployment cost, and terminal equipment penetration must all be overcome in order to demonstrate the technical benefits of Wi-Fi 7.

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