Nvidia: Don't count Android tablets out

January 12, 2012: 10:23 AM ET

So far, Android tablets have been a disappointment. Nvidia is betting that's about to change.

FORTUNE -- Like every other chipmaker on the planet, Nvidia (NVDA) is making a big bet on mobile. Earlier this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company unveiled a slew of new Android tablets powered by its Tegra 3 chip, a new quad-core processor. The lineup includes an Asus touchscreen tablet that will sell for just $250. But so far, Android tablets have failed to wow the market, which is still dominated by Apple's (AAPL) iPad. We sat down with the company's co-founder and CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang, to find out how Nvidia plans to take on tablets (and its rivals).

Fortune: So far, Android tablets have been a disappointment. Do you think that could change?

Huang: It will surely get better. There are too many different types of people with different needs, and one size doesn't fit all. The first couple of years Android tablets got off to a clumsy start. First, Android was splintered into two major platforms -- there was the old Android and the tablet Android. But now the whole thing has been united under Ice Cream Sandwich [the latest version of Google's (GOOG) operating system] which unifies Android into one single platform. Second, the devices came out too expensive. Apple set a price ceiling and everybody stumbled and searched for the right price point. Now the market has discovered the right price point.

Who's your biggest competitor?

Our number one threat is ultimately getting customers to believe that there's market demand for building these visually rich devices. We love to build digital devices with a lot of pixels and demand is naturally going towards richer and richer displays. We compete against Intel (INTC) and Qualcomm  (QCOM) in the fringes. Those are our major competitors.

How are you different from your competitors?

Of the the three companies we're the youngest. Intel started as a computer company, Qualcomm came in through connectivity, and our expertise is GPUs [graphics processing units]. And so if your digital device is just about running apps and enterprise computing is what you're trying to do then of course Intel has a really strong position. If your digital device is about communication then of course Qualcomm has a strong position. But if it's about a visual experience like a gaming device, we tend to have a much stronger position. So the three of us all have modem technologies and we all have CPUs, but we're strongest in GPUs. We all have our core strengths. It's like we're all restaurants but we all focus on a slightly different style.

Do you need to address any of your weaknesses in those other areas?

We just ignore it. If you're a Chinese restaurant you don't go chasing after doing some spaghetti on the side. This is what we do for a living. It's a large business and the opportunities are exploding. Just walk around the [CES] floor and you'll see more and more thin and beautiful displays. Those are our opportunities. Driving pixels is our opportunity.

Do consumers care whether they have a Tegra 3 processor or an Intel chip inside a tablet?

Yes, this is so important. If you walk into a store and there's an Apple device you trust that that company has made the right choices for you about the electronics and the chips inside that device. It's the same thing when you go to a restaurant that you trust. But in the Android world there are so many brands and you just don't know anything about these devices. So it's nice when there's a unifying ingredient. And the experience of these tablets depends on the operating system and the processor, it defines the experience. That's why you look at all our OEMs they all say 'this has a Tegra processor.'

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About This Author
Michal Lev-Ram
Michal Lev-Ram
Writer, Fortune

Based in Silicon Valley, Michal Lev-Ram covers enterprise and mobile technologies for FORTUNE. Prior to joining FORTUNE, she wrote for CNNMoney, Fast Company, Popular Science and other business and technology publications. She was also a staff writer at Business 2.0 and holds a B.A. in journalism from San Francisco State University.

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