Will Cash-rich Chip Cos. Go Shopping?

money in handA stabilizing economy, companies with larger cash piles, a general need for newer technologies (and products) and most importantly, revenue growth are among the reasons that we expect to see strong technology M&A activity in the coming months, as we noted two weeks ago. Since then, three major deals totaling more than $13 billion have been announced: Dell is buying Perot Systems for $3.9 billion, Xerox will acquire ACS for $6.4 billion and Cisco agreed to snap up Tandberg for $3 billion. So what about chip companies? Will they go shopping, too?

Today, EETimes.com came out with its list of the top 10 cash-rich chip makers, with Intel, Qualcomm and TSMC leading the charge. And revenue is on the rise again for chip firms, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association, which said today that total sales reached $19.06 billion in August. That’s up 5 percent from the month before, though still down by 16 percent from the same month last year.

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So they have the cash, they have revenue growth and some of the top 10 clearly need to add new products to their existing arsenals. With that in mind, we think Intel (with $10.45 billion in cash) and Qualcomm (with $9.89 billion) will be the two that actually go shopping, though their picks might surprise us. Intel will likely keep up its software splurges rather than buy any hardware companies. In a bid to make multicore programming easier, the chip giant bought bought two compiler makers this summer. It also bought Wind River, a software maker for the embedded chip market, in an effort to get its chips inside our set-top boxes, televisions and phones.

Another hot area is that of 3-D, making companies such as Organic Motion, which makes software that tracks a person’s movement and turns it into a 3-D representation, potential targets. Those that focus on 3-D using x86-based chips could prove to be likelier buys, however, especially as Intel gears up to release Larrabee, its x86-based graphics chip. (Related Research from GigaOM Pro, subscription required: How 3-D TV Will Go From Hasseloff to Must-Have)

Less likely buys for Intel would be semiconductor equipment makers. The equipment industry is struggling, and Intel has already invested in keeping one key player alive, but it may take a step further into outright ownership, if it feels forced to do so. Intel (along with Samsung and TSMC) is also trying to get the industry to move to making chips on larger wafers, despite protest from the equipment makers that such a shift is unnecessary and would be too costly for them. Owning a company that can help jump-start the process may convince the rest of the equipment companies to follow, or it may push Intel back into becoming a vertically integrated chip shop.

Meanwhile, Qualcomm could diversify away from chips and start bulking up on infrastructure services, such as when it bought Firethorn to increase its presence in mobile banking. Or we could see it go after players such as Jasper Wireless or Kore Telematics to grow its M2M connectivity business. If it wants to pursue a mobile CDN play for its MediaFLO network, it will likely have to buy some technology to bring a CDN service together.

Readers, who do you think Intel, Qualcomm or other chip vendors should buy?

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