Indian handset manufacturers are striving to move beyond the ODM model, and MediaTek and Qualcomm are here to help them create original smartphone designs.
The smartphone design is quickly becoming a test case for the "Make in India" push and MediaTek Inc. wants to make the best of it. The Hsinchu, Taiwan–based chipmaker, which reshaped China's mobile landscape by providing makers with handset-specific design support, is now eying India as its next mega design win.
India, the world's fourth-largest smartphone market, is at crossroads. The traders that started as distributors of Nokia and Samsung handsets eventually became mobile phone manufacturers in their own right by the early 2010s.
But they were actually white-labeling handsets created by the Chinese ODMs, and all these feature phones looked a lot similar. And the lack of original design work eventually caught up with Indian handset brands such as Karbonn, Lava, and Micromax when Chinese OEMs like Gionee, Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi began sweeping the smartphone market. Enter MediaTek.
The Taiwanese smartphone chipmaker is now showcasing its MT6739 smartphone chipset in India. Finbarr Moynihan, general manager of International Corporate Sales at MediaTek, calls it an India-specific SoC as it caters to the entry-level 4G smartphone market.
Will MediaTek be able to replicate its China success story in India?
According to Carter L. Horney, Associate Analyst at Forward Concepts, MT6739 matches the capabilities of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 425 and Snapdragon 450 chipsets released in 2016 and 2017, respectively. "What's unique about MediaTek's MT6739 chipset is support for dual SIM and VoLTE, two 4G features that are highly relevant to the Indian smartphone market."
And MediaTek is trying to spice up the demand for its LTE Cat 4 chipset by offering help on the product engineering side that includes integration of key components as well as planning and execution of smartphone design projects.
The Taiwanese silicon firm's opening of a new design center in Bangalore is accompanied with a two-and-a-half-month smartphone design training program for 50 Indian professionals having at least five years of experience in electronics-related R&D.
MediaTek vs. Qualcomm
Qualcomm is another contender for taking Indian handset manufacturers beyond the ODM model. The San Diego, California–based semiconductor supplier is funding its Innovation Labs in Hyderabad and Bangalore to offer smartphone-related design training as part of the $8.5 million Qualcomm Design in India Program (QDIP).
And when it comes to helping out smartphone OEMs on design work, Horney says that Qualcomm is better positioned than MediaTek. "Qualcomm has a lead in fingerprint sensor through glass, and that could make a huge difference in the Indian smartphone market," he added.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon 450 smartphone processor offers significant improvements on GPU and charging fronts.
Horney also pointed toward MediaTek's weak GPU technology, which impacts gaming, a highly popular smartphone application in India. Next, he added, is time to charge, a huge consumer consideration, where MediaTek lags behind Qualcomm. "And dual displays are possible with Qualcomm, not MediaTek."
Smartphones are now being commoditized, and handset design is largely becoming a specification game. But it's still a strategic market in India amid a large user volume and greater potential for first-time smartphone buyers.
So India has been gradually building production capacity for handsets, and it has also managed to acquire supply chain expertise over the years. However, the capability for original design work and mobile handset system integration has been a key missing link.
A helping hand from the two largest smartphone chipmakers—MediaTek and Qualcomm—could reinvigorate Indian handset makers' foray into differentiated smartphone design. And it will bring a new set of opportunities for hardware and software engineers in India.
Majeed Ahmad is former editor-in-chief of EE Times Asia.*