MediaTek is leveraging its newfound position as the dominant chipmaker in a big way with the announcement of the new Dimensity 9000. This is great news because of how the mobile device chip market looks and functions — a company needs to sell great chips that power devices we want to use for us to really care. Unfortunately, that's a spot where MediaTek has struggled.
On paper, the new TSMC 4N chip boasts some amazing specs. In multi-core and GPU performance, it equals Apple's offerings. When it comes to the NPU and ML capabilities, it beats Google's Tensor. In raw power and efficiency, it blows away everything we've seen from Qualcomm and Samsung. While everyone expected to see big gains from MediaTek's current lineup, nobody expected this.
Until we see it in action, slides with words like first, best, and fastest are all we have. Let's assume all the claims are valid, and the Dimensity 9000 is every bit as good as MediaTek claims it to be. Is this the final measure of "success" that puts MediaTek on equal footing with Qualcomm and Samsung when it comes to the chip that powers the best Android phones? Not really.
There are a few other things the Dimensity will need to pull off if MediaTek wants to become a true leader in the mobile device chip world.
This feels like I'm trying to spin a broken record. Yet support for both short and long term is the most important thing a component maker can offer. It matters even more when you're talking about a component like the SoC, which is what powers everything a device is capable of doing.
Everyone loves to compare things to the auto industry, so let's do just that. Do you want to buy a new car from General Motors knowing that the company is unable to provide technical support and customer care for more than just a few years because it has no control over the parts it used to build one? Because that's exactly how your smartphone works when it comes to support.
Some of the most popular phones in North America are built by Samsung but powered by Qualcomm. Samsung is only able to offer core software support because Qualcomm provides it to them. Once the support contract between Qualcomm and Samsung expires, Samsung's ability to fix flaws or provide meaningful updates is greatly diminished.
An expensive product like a $1,000 smartphone needs to be adequately supported for the physical lifespan of the parts used to build it. Of course, no company offers this (not even Apple) because those companies want you to buy new products. But they also want you to be happy customers, so a middle ground is needed. MediaTek could offer to extend the support period for the Dimensity line, and doing so would mean a lot to consumers.
Part of building a great product is complying with licensing agreements, and MediaTek has traditionally been a big believer in dragging its heels here.
A smartphone chip does nothing without firmware support or driver support, or documentation. Companies that spend absurd amounts of money on R&D hate being compliant in these areas because it seems like a way to give away the secrets behind how a product works. It really doesn't — I'm not going to be able to build a Dimensity 9000 clone in my workshop because MediaTek complies with the GPL, and Qualcomm already knows how it works.
Not complying with licensing requirements does cause real issues, though. Imagine that a company builds a gizmo that plugs into your phone, and you really want it, only to find out once you purchased it that it doesn't work with your phone. Or imagine if Google showed off an amazing new feature then said it works on every phone except for the model you own. Both these things could happen because a company doesn't properly comply and document.
It's easy to say this only matters to nerds who want to put custom software on their Android phones, but that's simply not true. MediaTek could do an about-face and proactively comply, which may cause a ripple effect. In the end, most users would only know that phone model XYZ is really good because so many things just work, and it gets so many new features.
Keep the momentum
If everything MediaTek tells us about the Dimensity 9000 is true, it can't be a one-off.
We expect to hear about new stuff from Qualcomm soon. Samsung, too will continue to keep building better products. We know both companies will continue to refine and improve their smartphone chips because they have always done so. Or at least attempted to do so — trying and failing is better than not trying at all.
The Dimensity 9001 needs to be better than the Dimensity 9000 in meaningful ways. Ultra-fast ISP pipelines need to be faster. CPU efficiency needs to keep improving. The GPU needs to continue to offer more and better features. Showing off a product like the Dimensity 9000 is great, but it also means that you will need to work even harder for the next iteration.
So far, MediaTek is on the right track here, and each year we see the Dimensity line get better and better. This is why the company's market share is so high. Once you reach the top, you can't afford to rest.
Show me the money
One of MediaTek's biggest problems is that it can't gain any traction in North America. Customers in China or India, or the E.U. may know how good or bad a MediaTek-powered device is, but the true formula for becoming "the best" is to offer your products to anyone and everyone who wants them. Just ask Google about that.
Ironically, this is likely an issue because MediaTek has never been able to nail down the other fundamentals. For example, 10 years ago, nobody would have wanted a phone powered by a MediaTek chip because Samsung and Qualcomm built much better products. In 2021, MediaTek may have shown us the best product, but it can't escape the past.
MediaTek needs to combat this by becoming aggressive. Court the Samsungs of the world and cut deals that are hard to decline. Then, if you believe in your product as much as you would like us to believe, show it to all of us no matter what it takes.
I don't know if MediaTek can win in a chip war. Qualcomm and Samsung are huge players that won't ever give up, nor should we want them ever to give up. But I know that if there was ever a time to try and claim the title of best, now is that time if you're MediaTek. 2022 will be here before we know it, and so will the new phones with new chips.
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