Friday, February 18, 2011

NXPI: Riding the NFC Wave

, On Thursday February 17, 2011, 2:30 pm EST

Near field communication (NFC) is a new technology that's getting some buzz from the Mobile World Congress that just took place in Barcelona. It seems like every major phone vendor was discussing how it planned to incorporate NFC into its phones this year.

Over on the flagship site, I discussed yesterday how Apple might incorporate NFC into their future iPads and iPhones. Apple has not disclosed any of its plans for NFC, but the company hired a well-known product manager away from startup mFoundry to head up Apple's NFC efforts last fall.

The majority of the media focus on NFC has had to do with payments. We will soon be able to use our phones to swipe at some point-of-sale machine at a cash register, and the NFC technology will link the payment to some account you designate.

Believe it or not, you will be able to buy phones in the next year that claim they have NFC technology, but it will be no more than an extra sticker they've put on the package. The problem with that version of NFC technology is that it isn't as secure as most of us would like when our money is on the line.

The robust version of the service that all the major phone manufacturers will roll out this year uses NFC-enabled semiconductor chips. The leader of the pack in the space is NXP Semiconductors NV . NXP was spun off from Philips last summer. The stock has some big-name private-equity firms and hedge funds behind it, including KKR, Bain Capital, Silver Lake, Third Point and OZ Management.

NFC was discussed as a phone feature last year, but it definitely was not on the front burner. Many thought of it as an incremental feature to the product, like a front-facing camera. However, as NFC has grown in popularity among phone makers, the stock of NXP has increased. It's now doubled since its IPO last August.

This week in Barcelona, Google and Research In Motion both announced support for NFC. Google is definitely using NXP chips in its latest version of the Android operating system. RIM didn't give out any details on what it might use at the chip level. Until a few months ago, RIM hadn't shown much interest in NFC, except maybe with sticker support. Back in 2009, RIM declined to take part in a major NFC trial in Canada sponsored by Visa and the Royal Bank of Canada .

On Tuesday, NXP released its fourth-quarter results and first-quarter guidance. Some were hoping for big guidance that would propel the stock forward and perhaps tip off that the company would be supplying Apple's new products this year. We didn't get that specificity or huge guidance, but the outlook was bright -- and certainly management is being conservative here.

NXP said that 70 million NFC-chip-enabled phones would be sold in 2011 and 120 million would be sold in 2012. That's huge growth ... and probably understated. As the leading player in the space today and with a partnership already in place with Google, NXP looks to be well positioned to capture most of the growth in this nascent segment. Rumors have swirled for months that Apple will choose NXP as its NFC supplier. We'll have to wait and see.

Beyond payments, NFC technology allows you to tap your phone to another device to share information; you can wave your phone near an item at a store to see deals or special information; and NFC-enabled phones will let you "check in" on various platforms. We're going to see many new location-based applications written for phones because of this technology.

Perhaps because there wasn't an Apple-specific announcement on Tuesday's earnings call, NXP's stock price traded down a little afterward. But the buyers came out in droves on Wednesday -- the stock had one its biggest-volume trading days in its short life as the stock jumped about 10%. The jump was partially spurred by higher targets and positive statements from Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse; both analysts were bullish on the company's future growth ramp.

It won't be an open market for NXP. Both Broadcom and Qualcomm have made small NFC-related acquisitions in the past few months. They will compete hard to win in the space. There are also smaller competitors like On Track Innovations , which already has relationships with Visa and MasterCard .

But NXP is definitely in the sweet spot to pick up most of the new growth. It will increasingly be an attractive acquisition candidate if growth continues to pick up. This stock is definitely one to watch for the next year.

[Eric was long NXPI and AAPL at time of publication]

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