Google has reportedly chosen Samsung over Qualcomm to build the 5G modem for the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. The story broke early on Wednesday via Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave of Reuters, who cited “sources familiar with the matter.”
This is good news for Samsung, but bad news for Qualcomm, which created both the processors and modems that were used in earlier models of the Pixel smartphone. While Qualcomm will continue to supply chips for the Pixel 5a, Google’s next-generation smartphones will instead run off Google’s Tensor chipset, which is built in-house, and Samsung’s 5G modem.
This is good news for Samsung, but bad news for Qualcomm.
In general, this is interesting news for people who own stock in Google, Samsung, and/or Qualcomm, or who routinely repair, dismantle, or sell high-end smartphones. For everyone else, this is trivia at best. It does say a lot about the relative chaos of the modern chip industry, however, as Qualcomm loses ground and Samsung gains it. Qualcomm previously held an unofficial U.S. monopoly on chip manufacture for smartphones, which the Reuters piece attributes to its technology lead.
If you’ve ever purchased a smartphone anywhere in the United States, it almost certainly had Qualcomm chips in it. This even applies to Samsung itself, at least in North America; in Asia and Europe, Samsung-brand phones like the Galaxy use Samsung’s own Exynos modem. The inclusion of Samsung’s 5G modems in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro is the first time that Samsung has ever sold this particular chip to another company.
Part of the game of musical chairs being played here is an issue of exclusivity. There are exactly three companies in the world that can currently make 5G wireless modems at all: Qualcomm, Samsung, and MediaTek. Of the three, Qualcomm has historically been the leader in the field, due to its greater experience working with millimeter-wave 5G networking. While Qualcomm may not have entirely lost that edge, Google’s movement away from it — and reports that both Samsung and Google can make chips that handle millimeter wave as well as Qualcomm’s — suggests that Qualcomm’s lead may have been diminished.
The “why” of this move is an open question. There’s still an international chip shortage, which has caused many companies like Apple to begin seriously pursuing in-house design and manufacturing. Samsung itself filed documents in February to build a semiconductor factory near Austin, Texas, at an estimated cost of over $17 billion.
Qualcomm has historically been the leader in the field.
It may simply be that the chip shortage has effectively created a weak spot for Qualcomm, which is now being filled by the companies that previously depended on it. Its previous edge, that it had invested so heavily in research and development that it was easier for other companies in the space to buy chips from it than develop their own, got eroded by its inability to meet demand.
That isn’t to say that Qualcomm is necessarily in trouble — it’s been successfully pursuing a diversification strategy in 2021, with expanding automotive and Internet of Things divisions — but it’s now got some competition in the 5G modem space it didn’t have before.