By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Qualcomm Inc, the world leader in smartphone microchips, may want to shore up its defensive tactics.
Taiwan's MediaTek Inc, the leading chip supplier for Chinese smartphones, is barreling into the U.S. market with a new major global branding campaign and setting up shop in San Diego, California, home to Qualcomm.
This year, MediaTek plans to hire about 150 engineers, business development and marketing staff in the United States, adding to a 300-strong U.S. workforce, said Kristin Taylor, MediaTek's vice president of U.S. corporate marketing. Outside the United States, the company plans to add 1,000 employees in 2014, increasing its ranks by around 10 percent.
"We really feel that it's a strategic area," she said of San Diego's Sorrento Valley, where MediaTek plans to open its new office in the next few months. It is home to many technology companies clustered around Qualcomm, one of the city's largest employers.
"A lot of our technology partners sit in that area and we want to be able to serve them," said Taylor, a former Qualcomm veteran who joined MediaTek last year.
MediaTek is relatively unknown outside Asia, where it has grown in the past decade to become the dominant supplier of low-cost cellphone chips, instrumental in helping companies such as China's Xiaomi and South Korea's LG Electronics Inc produce handsets that sell for less than $100 each.
MediaTek plans this month to launch a rebranding campaign highlighting its expansion beyond China and into the United States and other developed markets led by Qualcomm.
"We need to redefine that we really are at this point serving the entire globe and not just small pockets of the world," Taylor said. She declined to give more details ahead of its launch.
Lacking relationships with U.S. phone carriers, MediaTek is unlikely to challenge Qualcomm's command of the high-end phone market soon, analysts said. In the mid- and low-tier categories, the Taiwanese company's ability to produce chips very cheaply is giving it an edge over other U.S. players like Broadcom Corp, Nvidia Corp and even Intel Corp, which are all trying to compete with Qualcomm.
MediaTek, whose stock market value of $18 billion surpasses Broadcom and Nvidia, far outsells Qualcomm in handsets aimed at Chinese consumers but it supplies processors for less than 3 percent of smartphones sold in the United States, according to Strategy Analytics analyst Sravan Kundojjala.
MediaTek believes its future chips will help manufactures make cheap phones that can compete in quality against more expensive devices made with Qualcomm's components.
"The opportunity lies in picking up one of the fringe (manufacturers), giving them an excellent platform, great performance and a good price," said Evercore analyst Patrick Wang. "Get a couple of those who get traction at a carrier in the U.S. and suddenly you see MediaTek's export share increase a lot."
SEEKING NEW GROWTH
Founded in 1997, MediaTek got its start designing chips for digital televisions and optical devices like DVD players, before turning its attention to cellphones. Last year, it sold over 200 million smartphone chips in Asia and became the world's 14th largest semiconductor company, according to research firm IHS.
MediaTek's expansion into the U.S. market comes as it faces more competition in China, where Qualcomm as well as up-and-coming rivals like Shanghai-based chipmaker Spreadtrum are replicating its low-cost model.
Analysts on average expect MediaTek's revenue growth to slow to 30 percent in 2014, from 36 percent in 2013. While that far outpaces Qualcomm's forecast 8 percent revenue growth, JPMorgan has warned that MediaTek could be hurt by the slower rollout of next-generation wireless products in China.
With a strategy that centers on offering manufacturers turnkey blueprints for quickly making inexpensive phones, MediaTek's sights are set on mid-range smarpthones from the likes of Lenovo or Huawei, rather than premium devices from Apple Inc or Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.
Some analysts expect mid-range phones to gain popularity in the U.S. market, where a price war between carriers is expected to intensify this year.
MediaTek's move into mid-priced devices in China and around the world, along with efficient cost controls, may push its 2013 operating margin of 18 percent up another 4 percentage points over the next two years, said Evercore's Wang.
Like competitors, MediaTek is rushing to roll out wireless chips featuring Long-Term Evolution, an advanced technology for faster data transfer. LTE has become standard in U.S. phones and it is slowly being introduced in other parts of the world.
So far, that technology is dominated by Qualcomm as rivals have run into delays launching their own LTE chips due to the technology's complexity. That has left handset manufacturers craving an alternative.
"Qualcomm owns 90-plus percent of the LTE modem market. That's not a comfortable place for many of these OEMs (original equipment manufacturers)," said IDC analyst Les Santiago. "That alone will create an opportunity for a second-place LTE player. The issue is - who will that be?"
For its part, Qualcomm said rivals have underestimated the challenge of making LTE chips that work well on different carriers' networks. The company has made four generations of LTE products, a much longer track record than MediaTek and others.
"We'll see what happens when the products show up," Qualcomm Senior Marketing Director Peter Carson said of rivals' plans for LTE. "We know the industry continues to underestimate the increasing complexity of the LTE roadmap. We believe we have a performance advantage."
(Editing by Tiffany Wu, Edwin Chan and Bernard Orr)