Friday, January 7, 2011

Atheros purchase continues shift north

Qualcomm doesn’t do acquisitions as often as Cisco or Oracle. The WSJ says it bought six companies in FY2010, one in 2009 and five in 2008. Almost all of its acquisitions are below $50m.

Like Apple, it prefers to make rather than buy. This could be due to a strong corporate culture, “not invented here,” hubris, or a realization that so many acquisitions are failures (at least for the acquiring company).

The $3.1 billion plan to buy WiFi chip maker Atheros is one of the biggest and most strategic acquisitions of the company’s history. (To put the size in perspective, the company’s market cap has hovered around $70-80 billion over the past decade). The next biggest acquisition was $1b in 2000 for GPS chipmaker SnapTrack, which made Steve Poizner a multi-millionaire and perennial candidate.

However, to me the strategic importance of Atheros seems more similar to the $800 million to buy Flarion in 2005, to acquire its OFDMA technology and cement its position as a 4G patent-holder.

Yes, the Atheros technology will help it compete more for tablets, as did its 2009 purchase of AMD’s handheld business. More broadly, it continues its shift away from a cellphone chip maker to a mobile device components company, as with the 2004 acquisition that led to the Mirasol color display technology that it hopes will power e-readers Real Soon Now.

But I think the major strategic importance is that it positions Qualcomm in direct competition with Broadcom, the Irvine-based patent nemesis. Broadcom has succeeded by integrating everything with everything else on a chip, commoditizing away single-purpose chips. For mobile communications device, Qualcomm is broadening its industry footprint in a way that gives current Broadcom customers more choices.

It also increases Qualcomm’s competition with Intel. In some ways, Intel helped Qualcomm by reducing Atheros recent growth and thus depressing the sale price. (San Jose-based Atheros was cofounded by Stanford University president John Hennessy).

Finally, I think this is part of the increasing evidence that Qualcomm is emphasizing growth outside San Diego. The SnapTrack acquisition formed the nucleus of what now is its Santa Clara campus. The big Q paid $80 million in 2007 for the low-rise campus to co-locate all of its Silicon Valley acquisitions. (Interestingly, Qualcomm has said nothing publicly about its Silicon Valley expansion efforts.)

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The 320,000 square feet facility is smaller than one building in San Diego, the 12-story building WT that is headquarters for QCT. Still, by modern office standards, the campus could hold nearly 1,000 workers, even if the parking lot seems to limit the campus to 500 or so.

Qualcomm’s founding CEO Irwin Jacobs moved to California to teach at UCSD. However, his successor, son Paul, did his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and clearly has stronger ties to the Bay Area than his father ever did. The Santa Clara campus shows that rather than trying to relocate SV talent to San Diego — something that has been nearly impossible since the Linkabit days — that it will create a major foothold in the valley to take advantage of its tech talent and job mobility.

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