American buyers looking for a high-end phone have an excellent chance of ending up with a SoC from one of two families: an Apple A-series chip in one of the various iPhone models, or a chip from Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800-series portfolio used by almost all Android vendors. Huawei uses its in-house HiSilicon Kirin 970 in a couple of handsets, but those are a drop in the bucket compared to the flagship market taken as a whole.
Phone vendors might soon be getting an additional high-end SoC option from Samsung, as the Korean silicon manufacturer is reportedly expanding third-party sales of its Exynos chips beyond current exclusive customer Meizu to anyone who wants them, including troubled Chinese phone maker ZTE.
Samsung doesn't use its own Exynos SoCs in US-bound phones, possibly owing to the integrated modems' lack of CDMA support. American wireless network operators Verizon and Sprint both employ this wireless channel access method in their networks, but CDMA is far less common in the rest of the world. Anandtech's testing suggests that the latest chips from Samsung have not yet caught up with Qualcomm's most powerful mobile chips in performance or power efficiency, but the Exynos chips nevertheless have enough scoot to satisfy most users' needs.
Inyup Kang, the leader of Samsung's logic chip development efforts, said he expects his employer to announce a new round of Exynos chips in the first half of 2019, suggesting that the unnamed third-party may already be developing a phone built around an Exynos SoC.
ZTE may desperately need chips from Samsung in order to maintain its presence in the smartphone market. The company has been banned from purchasing parts from US-based vendors like Qualcomm for seven years as punishment for selling products with parts manufactured in the US to Iran and North Korea. Reuters says ZTE has been scrambling to diversify its parts sourcing even as US President Donald Trump promised to help the company “get back in business fast.” For its part, Samsung told Reuters that no agreement with ZTE had yet been reached and that it “treats all vendors equally.”
Samsung would also reportedly like to increase its footprint in the burgeoning market for high-end silicon for automotive applications. Reuters says the company also has a deal to provide Exynos SoCs to German automaker Audi. The application of those chips wasn't specified, but the company apparently would like to sell the processors needed for autonomous driving, too.
According to Reuters, Samsung's chipmaking business generated a profit of 35.2 trillion won last year (about $33 billion), good for almost two-thirds of the entire company's profit of 53.65 billion won (about $50 billion). The outlet says about 96% of silicon-sourced profits came from memory chip manufacturing, a figure that surely wouldn't surprise anyone that has tried to build a PC lately. Growing its customer base to include third-party phone manufacturers and automakers could help Samsung's silicon division cushion the blow when or if memory demand and pricing returns to normal levels.