April 20, 2024

As PC Markets Slow, Nvidia Aims at Tablets

Mr. Huang — a Taiwanese immigrant, onetime table tennis champ and Stanford-educated electrical engineer — took a gamble in 2006 on a graphics chip that would give his company the lead in the most sophisticated computing power used in moviemaking and science. And in 2003, he energized Nvidia after it lost a lucrative deal for supplying a graphics chip to the Microsoft Xbox game machine.

Now he wants the company to make another shift, stretching beyond graphics to build the chips that power smartphones and tablets.

“We used to be a PC graphics company — only PCs, only graphics,” Mr. Huang said in an interview last week. “We have reinvented Nvidia.”

It is an opportune time for the shift. Tablets are poised to surge, as PC sales are slowing. Meanwhile, the technology in PCs is changing, threatening the company’s old market. Intel and Advanced Micro Devices both sell main processors that include graphics abilities, cutting out the need for add-on graphics processors, and already eating into some Nvidia sales.

“We are well positioned to go after a market opportunity that is sixfold the market opportunity of the Nvidia you knew from the past,” Mr. Huang recently told analysts.

Behind Mr. Huang’s showmanship and bold plans is the Tegra 2, the company’s latest mobile chip. This chip, based on the power-efficient chip architecture from ARM Holdings, has started to appear in a number of smartphones, like the Droid X2, and in tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 that run on Google’s Android operating system. Mr. Huang envisions Nvidia becoming as essential to Android as Intel has long been to Windows PCs.

Although few people in the chip industry dismiss Mr. Huang’s ideas, the path will be difficult. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about how they are going to outgrow their core graphics business,” said Rajvindra Gill, an analyst with Needham Company, which recently downgraded Nvidia’s stock to hold from buy.

Still, the shift appears to be a necessary step.

A recent report from Jon Peddie Research shows that Nvidia’s share of the market for graphics processing — including integrated and stand-alone chips — dropped eight percentage points year over year in the first quarter to 20 percent, while A.M.D.’s share of the graphics chip market rose three percentage points and Intel’s rose almost five percentage points.

The PC market, over all, is slowing as well. Gartner, a technology research firm, expects worldwide PC sales to increase only 10.5 percent, to 388 million units, this year, far below the forecast of 15.9 percent it made six months ago. And that number might even be optimistic.

During the first three months of the year, Gartner says, the PC industry shrank by about 1 percent, with some industry analysts saying it contracted more than that.

The problem is a maturing market in the United States, a decline in demand from recession-weary corporations and, increasingly, a growing consumer appetite for tablet computers.

So far, Nvidia’s strategy is working. The company posted $100 million in sales of Tegra 2 during the first quarter, only months after releasing the chip.

Meanwhile, a settlement in January of a patent dispute with Intel is also helping the company’s bottom line. Intel has agreed to pay Nvidia $1.5 billion over five years. Nvidia can expect a payment of about $66 million a quarter from Intel in exchange for Intel’s use of Nvidia’s patents.

To push further into the mobile market, Nvidia this month agreed to pay $367 million for Icera Inc., a British start-up with a collection of baseband technology, which connects mobile devices to cellular networks. Having its own baseband technology will help Nvidia compete with Intel and, even more important, with Qualcomm, the leader in mobile chips.

With Icera’s technology, Nvidia will be able to create products that combine microprocessor and communication technology, potentially bringing down the chip’s price as well as its size.

Nvidia might also find an opportunity in Microsoft’s plans to make a version of its Windows Phone operating system for ARM chips. That opens the market for Nvidia’s Tegra 2 chips in phones and tablets that one day could run Microsoft’s operating system, including Nokia phones.

For now, Nvidia’s fortunes are largely tied to Android devices. Although Apple uses Nvidia chips in the MacBook Air, it uses chips of its own design in iPhones and iPads.

But many of the smartphones using the Tegra 2 chip have been huge sellers, with more customers all the time. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Motorola unveiled an Android-equipped Droid Bionic and Atrix 4G phones while LG showed off its Optimus 2x — all based on Nvidia’s Tegra 2 chip, and all to much critical acclaim.

But chips in tablets may be a bit of a slog.

In Mr. Huang’s view, the early tablets using Android, on sale since last year, suffered from high prices, a lack of compelling applications and a shortage of knowledgeable retailers. But he predicted that these issues would not be a problem in the next wave of Android tablets, due this year.

Those new tablets may use the company’s quad-core processor, a chip with four processors in one, he said.

Tegra 2 chips will go into the latest tablet announced — the Eee Pad Transformer TF101, a laptop that turns into a tablet.

Mr. Huang was certain that new Android tablets will help Apple’s competitors unseat the iPad as the reigning king of the tablets.

“In a couple two to three years I can imagine Android operating half the world’s tablets, if not more,” he said.

Others agree; Jefferies, the investment bank and research company, for example, says that by 2014, Android tablets will outsell iPads by about 40 million units.

If Mr. Huang’s plans go accordingly, Nvidia will be in many of them.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=9df55a22f3eaf6dcd4d60bb60115410e

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