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What awaits Qualcomm in 2013: A brief overview

ITProPortal met up with some senior Qualcomm spokespersons, one of the more prominent technology companies at CES 2013 in Las Vegas, to discuss the company’s outlook for 2013 and how it intends to evolve.

The US-based semiconductor company was in the limelight at the beginning of CES with a rather controversial keynote which some dubbed “the most insane keynote ever” with Maroon 5 and Desmond Tutu, amongst many, appearing on stage.

Whether or not it was cringe worthy or not, it did achieve its overall goal, making sure that everyone talks about the keynote and lending credence to the proverb, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Our first spokesperson was Michelle Leyden-Li who is Senior Director of Marketing, QCT Division at Qualcomm and who oversees the marketing for Snapdragon globally. CES 2013 saw the launch of a new family of system-on-chip solutions with the Snapdragon 800 being its flagship model (more about it here).

She reaffirmed Qualcomm’s commitment to focus on better features (like battery life, wireless) from the user perspective rather than purely on specifications. The company, she says, cares more about what the user can do with his or her device especially as people’s expectations are getting higher with each passing generation.

This makes sense given that the market is currently going through some turbulence exemplified by the arrival of a number of new major players (Nvidia, AMD, Huawei), the difficult times endured by ST-Ericsson and the emergence of a new wave of fabless, nimble players (Amlogic, VIA, Rockchip, AllWinner, Nufront) who compete on time-to-market and price rather than on feature.

Another important way of distinguishing between chipset is overall raw performance, a field where benchmarks are becoming increasingly important. Incidentally, Qualcomm develops one of the more popular benchmarks on Android, Vellamo, which doesn’t seem to favour the company’s products in anyway.

Leyden-Li also revealed that Qualcomm is working very closely with Snapdragon customers (like device manufacturers) to update and optimise Android via firmware and updates to get the best out of Google’s mobile platform. She also briefly described some of Snapdragon’s power consumption tweaks like an asynchronous SMP CPU design which allows cores to be switched off or clocked independently.

When questioned over the concept of big.LITTLE from ARM, which rival companies like Nvidia, TI and Samsung have embraced, Snapdragon’s head honcho said that Qualcomm hadn’t been convinced yet that this paradigm holds the key to optimal power efficiency. Ultimately, each piece of the system-on-chip puzzle, from the modem to the GPU, is independently optimised to maximise power efficiency.

Turning to GPGPU, Leyden-Li said that the new Adreno 330 GPU present on the Snapdragon 800 should make it easier for developers to implement GPGPU functionality within their applications. When we asked whether the GPGPU will ultimately push the CPU into a secondary role, she stated that there is not one piece within the system level architecture that is going to rule the SoC.

Qualcomm, she continued, is ready to take on new challenges. For example, the firm has enjoyed a great working relationship with Microsoft over Windows RT, managing to fit in all Windows RT tablets on the market bar the Surface. “There’s a lot of opportunities but a lot of challenges as well”, Leyden-Li quipped.

Lastly, she said that the arrival of Anand Chandrasekher, Intel’s former Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Ultra Mobility Group, doesn’t necessarily mean that Qualcomm will start to behave like the world’s biggest semiconductor company.

Next on our schedule was Peter Carson, Senior Director QCT Product Management at Qualcomm.

The focus of our brief encounter was the modem in the Snapdragon 800, the Gobi MDM9x25, a Category 4 LTE part announced nearly one year ago at MWC and is etched on a 28nm process.

It supports all seven cellular modes, can reach speeds up to 150Mbps, supports carrier aggregation and even includes a Cortex A5-type application processor which is needed for low level tasks and applications (think internet of everything and M2M communication).

The part boosts best-in-class power consumption figures which is noteworthy given that 4G/LTE is not as mature as 3G and 2G technologies. Compared to two unnamed rival solutions, Carson quotes 69 per cent and 44 per cent better power (mW) per MB of throughput. Obviously, this data hasn’t been independently verified as far as we know but even if the real world figures are close, that would translate into better battery life.

Carson succinctly glossed over Qualcomm’s new transceiver, the WRT1605, which is using a 65nm manufacturing process. This translates into a smaller die and package size (25mm2) thanks to some clever integration; note that it also supports all seven major modes including TD-SCDMA.

When asked over how the baseband will evolve over the next 12 months, he pointed out to the integration of RF parts, better coexistence between adjacent bands and the implementation of the IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) Framework on the modem itself, a move that will reduce the latency between the application processor and the modem as well as significant power savings.

Finally, he pointed out that die area is no longer as important given the fact that the smallest commercially available geometry (28nm) is now used to produce the modem.

Indeed, Carson was adamant that the package size and the level of integration were more important since they impact on the board area to be occupied and compete with other components including the battery.

Our third Qualcomm interview was with Kanwalinder Singh, senior vice president of business development, new markets for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies (QCT). He briefed us on the markets Qualcomm is pinning hopes of expansion for a near future, all cosily tucked under the “Internet of Everything” or IoE umbrella.

The automotive segment is going to be a massive one for Qualcomm. Singh pointed us to the recent launch of the 2013 Audi A3 car which features a MDM9215 baseband modem. The latter delivers connected services over 4G/LTE essentially providing features such as an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot with data rates of up to 100mbps, internet radio, an augmented navigation system and web services.

The transformative process of the car industry is similar to the one undergone by phones, moving from “feature” to “smart” and over the next few years, this could significantly improve the attach rate of the car, as a primary product. Improved connectivity experience will transform the car into much more than just a transport medium as it percolates to mid-tier cars as well.

Singh reckons that existing technologies such as Qualcomm’s own Alljoyn will allow users to enjoy a much better experience thanks to seamless integration, something that will facilitate content consumption.

The second segment Qualcomm is focusing on is smart energy, embodied by an announcement earlier this year. The company team up with US-telecommunication giant AT&T to develop a plug-and-play “Internet of Everything” development platform. The latter is similar to Qualcomm’s own mobile development platforms and is aimed at decreasing the time-to-market (and ultimately barriers of entry) for budding developers and small players.

Singh confirmed that European customers will be getting the SDK soon and said that the product was developed in order because there is too much fragmentation in the market and to fulfil a demand for more affordable and simpler solutions.

Pivotal to IoE is the concept of M2M (or Machine to Machine), which in the long run will bring smartphone technology to every imaginable market and device (like always-on-connectivity, smart power management or high-level operating system). Possible applications includes smart metres or home security, jam-packed with sensors.

Singh ended our meeting mentioning that middleware will play a key role in the propagation of IoE. Getting the likes of AllJoyn across as many verticals as possible and amongst as many partners as possible (like AT&T or Oracle), he concluded, will be vital.

Desire worked at ITProPortal right at the beginning and was instrumental in turning it into the leading publication we all know and love today. He then moved on to be the Editor of TechRadarPro - a position he still holds - and has recently been reunited with ITProPortal since Future Publishing's acquisition of Net Communities.