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Xiaomi makes its own SOC, so does Samsung Huawei and of course Apple

There is a truck load of money in mobile hardware and the proof is the thick, hard core battle that is still raging among the many, many makers of Android phones.

What makes mobile phones different (like how they are always ‘awake’ unlike say a PC) is what is under the hood. PCs are powered by a Motherboard to which a lot of things like Processor, slots, wireless card, Bluetooth card, sound card, power supply socket and so on are available. That is why we tend to use the word ‘assembled PC’ or ‘off the shelf PC’. That is also why PC hardware enthusiasts exist (but there are no mobile hardware enthusiasts exist, at least not amongst the tech crowd) because it is possible swap out and swap things in. This is also why PCs cannot be ‘awake’ like how phones.

So, unlike PCs, mobile phones have under the hood, what is called as ‘System On Chip’ or SOC. As the name indicates, a SOC has everything (except for RAM and hard drive) already plugged into it. In most cases, the RAM and HDD is probably sealed on to the SOC by the phone manufacturer. That would explain why you cannot just upgrade the RAM on your phone, like how you would on the PC. Thanks to a tight integration, SOCs manage to improve power efficiency and make everything work real smooth. Less nuts and bolts equals less replicability but also more efficiency. Thank god for SOCs because I cannot imagine mobile phones being awesome as they are now without them.

While all this is good, there is a small problem. At least for the phone makers. The big dog in SOC making is of course Qualcomm. As mobile phones have grown in popularity, so has Qualcomm revenue, with they are now big enough take on companies such as Intel. This causes a lot of problems for phone manufacturers their fortunes are tied to what Qualcomm can do. Good or bad, this did not happen with the PC market. Probably because, the PC market was fairly well divided. In terms of processors, there was Intel and AMD. Motherboard manufacturers were like so many. Wireless chip makers were so many. Power supply makers were so many. The power, so to speak, did not rest in one hand.

With SOC, a lot of things are welded in. The SOC maker, hence, wield a lot of power. Qualcomm is already pretty big and it can only get bigger as the android market grows. Of course, a company like Qualcomm would continue to innovate and add new features because alternates are readily available, but again, Qualcomm is big because they make excellent SOCs. There is that.

Other than the ‘being held hostage’ scenario, there is another problem. A problem that android makers suffer from greatly. That has to do with being unable to differentiate themselves. With the kind of maturity that we see in the android market, despite being a tech guy, I myself wonder what exactly is the difference between a mid-range phone and a high-end phone.

The phone I have right now, Oppo F1, meets all my needs and it only cost 15000 bucks. It runs all my productivity apps and it helps me take great pictures, and social apps like Instagram compress the photos to such an extent that all photos look like they were taken by a 5-megapixel camera from the late 2010s. A slightly more expensive phone that I might want to buy is OnePlus 3, and then there is the Galaxy S7 and then the Pixel phones by Google.  I like expensive things, but I am unable to justify the purchase of a more expensive phone because I am unable to tell the difference between a basic Oppo F1 and a OnePlus3 or S7 or Pixel. Sure, a more expensive phone means bragging rights, and I could show off. However, there are other things you can use to show off, and a phone is hardly the device to brag about.

All in all, mobile manufacturers are struggling to tell their customers, why their phone is different from the others. That is where SOCs come into the picture. The SOC will allow – to some extent – certain unique features to be included with the phone. It could allow better integration of digital assistants, better power saving features, better photo taking, hardware customizations. A combination just might allow phone makers to differentiate them from each other. It will also save licensing fees that needs to be paid to Qualcomm, and also reduce the power that Qualcomm might wield if everything is buying matchsticks from them.

This is perhaps why Xiaomi is following along the footsteps of Samsung and Huawei. Samsung has its Exynos SOC (which powers a huge percentage of the Galaxy S7 phones they sell, and almost all phones sold in India are Exynos driven and not Qualcomm powered), Huawei has its Kirin series of SOC. Obviously, Apple has its own ‘A’ series of SOCs. Given these reasons, it is good that Xiaomi is hedging its bets in a meaningful way. I have had mixed experiences with Xiaomi and I hope they fix their supply chain issues (it’s almost impossible to actually buy a Xiaomi product when you want it. I don’t know how a company like this can survive with such an inefficient supply chain) so they can actually compete in the big league. They have a good design team, and talented engineers. I wish them all the best.

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