Nvidia Replaces Tegra Business Leader With Former Head Of TI OMAP, Faces off With Qualcomm

Nvidia announced today that Phil Carmack, the head of Tegra development since the project's inception, has left Team Green to take a position as CEO "of one of our [Nvidia's] partner companies." He'll be succeeded by Deepu Talla. Talla joined Nvidia earlier this year, after more than a decade at Texas Instruments, as general manager of its OMAP product line. TI effectively pulled the plug on OMAP last year and has been winding down the business unit. OMAP 5 products exist, technically, but none have shipped and no handhelds are currently expected to come to market.

Talla's greatest challenge will be continuing the strong momentum of Tegra 2 and Tegra 3. Earlier this year, Nvidia was rumored to have lost out on future versions of the Nexus 7 to Qualcomm, and the company's own sales projections for FY 2014 (Calender Year 2013) reflect a downward trend:

Nvidia is claiming that Tegra's business is cyclical, which is a nicer way of saying "The worst sales we've seen since Tegra 2 started shipping." The problem is simple:  Google reportedly went with Qualcomm for the next-generation Nexus 7 because of two points, as reported by Pacific Crest's Michael McConnell:  "1) competitive pricing and (2) a decision to single-source the application processor and 3G/4G modem to simplify logistics and create a fully pin-compatible platform interface.”

Now, Nvidia has Tegra 4i, which is the lower-end version of Tegra 4 with an integrated software modem and some genuinely interesting improvements to the standard Cortex-A9 CPU that could boost performance above what we've seen from those cores to date, even if they'll never match Cortex-A15 standards. There's just one problem there, and Nvidia themselves admitted it during their Financial Analyst Day:

See that far right corner, where it says "Shipping Smartphones?"  Check the date.

Nvidia's integrated software modem, in other words, isn't ready for prime time. And that means the first crop of Tegra 4 products could be in for a rough ride, particularly if Qualcomm aggressively markets their own new Snapdragon products.

None of this should be read as an indictment of Tegra 4's technology; Nvidia's technical whitepapers and demos point to the T4 as one of the most impressive mobile products we've ever seen. The hardware should be more than capable of taking on Samsung and Qualcomm products through the end of the year. The lack of an integrated 28nm modem, however, could genuinely hurt Nvidia's adoption chances. Talla could have a tough time rebuilding Tegra's momentum this year, unless he can convince OEMs that Tegra 4's GPU performance and Companion Core design are better strengths than the on-die 28nm LTE modem that Qualcomm offers.