The biggest splash of MWC 2012 was made by HTC's One X, a 4.7-inch Android 4.0 phone whose skyscraping spec sheet is built around the quad-core Tegra 3 processor. Unless you live in the United States, that is. In the world's most important smartphone market, HTC will be shipping the One X with a dual-core chip. Wherefore, you ask? Simple: AT&T is the network carrying the phone and, much like its nearest and dearest rival Verizon, it now demands LTE in all of its high-end smartphones.
You can't have a hero device on either of the two big US carriers without an LTE modem in it. And the trouble for Nvidia is that there are no current Tegra 3 LTE configurations for someone like HTC to offer to AT&T. The One X swaps out the four-core chip with Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4, which not only brings LTE to the table but integrates it right into the chipset as well. Setting aside the issue of which application processor provides better performance — which is far from a settled one at this point — the situation right now is that Qualcomm's modem is what carriers are after. By being the foremost provider of LTE modems, and by tying them to its own processor, Qualcomm is effectively precluding the conversation about whether Tegra or Snapdragon is the premier hardware platform in the US.
Admittedly, Nvidia isn't standing still. A low-key announcement ahead of MWC revealed that Renesas and GCT are collaborating with Nvidia and actively working on LTE modems for Tegra 3. Fujitsu's Tegra 3 prototype, teased since CES, will ship with an LTE modem onboard, one of Fujitsu's own making. And, lest we forget, Asus is throwing a discrete LTE chip into the newly announced Pad 300. Additionally, Nvidia's acquisition of Icera is expected to bear LTE fruit next year when Project Grey will have 4G integrated into the chipset, catching up with Qualcomm.
The problem for Nvidia is what happens until it gets caught up. The One X situation looks set to repeat itself with every major Tegra 3 phone launch over the coming months, leaving the company frozen out of the absolute high end in the US, which is typically where the seeds of success are sown. If you've been envisioning buying a quad-core, Nvidia-powered smartphone from AT&T or Verizon in the coming months, you might want to shelve that ambition for a while.
I spoke with a number of Nvidia reps here at MWC and they do recognize the situation they are in, but they also advise a sense of perspective. LTE handsets are still only a tiny fraction of the overall smartphone marketplace and there remains opportunity to get Tegra 3 into US consumers' hands and pockets via the other national carriers, Sprint and T-Mobile. Nvidia hasn't been hit blind by Qualcomm's LTE hegemony, but the first order of business following its acquisition of modem maker Icera has been to introduce the 450 HSPA+ radio, which starts off life on the ZTE Mimosa X in Q2 of this year. Nvidia's response has evidently been to play it safe by addressing a much larger potential market.
Time will tell whether Nvidia's approach has been the right one in financial terms, but there's no doubt that the company's mindshare and reputation for cutting edge innovation will diminish over the first half of this year as eager US buyers find themselves grappling with a choice of either LTE or Tegra 3.