Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The new frontier in mobile computing: Q&A with Qualcomm EVP Steve Mollenkopf

Current trends in mobile devices have substantially changed how we think about computing in general, and looking at the market shows that these tectonic shifts will affect the entire supply chain, from semiconductor providers down to system makers, and even to software developers. Just before Computex Taipei 2011, Digitimes had the chance to talk with Steve Mollenkopf, EVP and group president at leading semiconductor solution provider Qualcomm, to discuss the quickly evolving mobile computing market and learn more about the role Qualcomm plays in enabling its partners.

Q: What does Qualcomm envision when it talks about new frontiers in mobile computing?

A: if you look at the convergence trends that have been progressing over the past few years, essentially what you have is mobile guys trying to extend the mobile ecosystem up into tablets and eventually up into notebooks. And the market pressure exerted by smartphones is really pulling the traditional PC players into new areas as they try to compete. This is really changing the market dynamic. One of the best examples of that is Microsoft's announcement earlier this year that it would be supporting the ARM platform in the future. The market has seen huge changes recently and it will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

Q: Convergence has been talked about for years, why is now such a critical time in the evolution of the market?

A: If you look at the current market situation, there are there are three areas that have driven the industry to reach critical mass.

First of all, advancements in semiconductor design have substantially increased the amount of computing power that you be put into the small thermal envelope needed to efficiently power a mobile phone or portable device. What this means is that you can now put the same processing power in a smartphone or another type of handheld device that used to be in a notebook, and that is really opening up the market to new designs and usage models.

The second thing that is shaping the current market is that the shift to next-generation mobile networks has meant that a lot of data can be quickly delivered to - and enjoyed by - mobile devices, with multimedia and Internet content driving demand. High-speed 3G and 4G networks really enable an enormous amount of connectivity to occur with mobile devices.

The third area where the market is really evolving is that the dynamics of the software market have changed a great deal. Most developers used to focus on the PC ecosystem, and a major priority driving software vendors in the past was making sure that they maintained backward compatibility for their applications. If you look at the market now, most people are developing for smartphone platforms and those platforms are migrating up. This has broken the link of being encumbered by legacy applications. This phenomena is only going to accelerate even more as we move into cloud computing and most user data and applications end up being positioned somewhere in the cloud.

So what this means is that currently there is a kind of perfect storm in the mobile environment that is bringing the best of all worlds together. It is really going to change the way mobile devices are used and it is also going to change the technology in them.

Q: While users are expecting more from their mobile devices, system providers have to deal with more complexity, making it harder to quickly deliver products to market. Can you explain how Qualcomm can help enable its partners in this area?

A: It's true. What you see, particularly as you start moving into mobile computing is that the devices are very complex. For market players, this means that your solution needs to excel along many different vectors. It has to have a high-performing processor. It has to have a high-performing graphics engine. It has to have a high-performing modem. It has to be a high performing connectivity solution.

Moreover, all of those areas need to be blended together in an optimal manner. It doesn't make sense for a device to simply be a collection of assets. All the areas need to work properly together for that system to be a success. What that means for semiconductor solution providers is that you need to have all of these assets in house in order to best enable your customers.

Really, when the complexity of the solution becomes quite high, it is going to be very difficult for many players to deliver that system solution efficiently and at the speed that is required in order to be competitive in the market. A lot of solution providers may excel in one area or another, but not really in all areas. This makes things more difficult for downstream system providers. What Qualcomm has endeavored to achieve is to try to excel across multiple vectors. We have been lucky in that we have had the scale to invest, to allow us to be successful.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your hardware features, especially Snapdragon?

A: Referring back to Qualcomm being able to succeed across multiple vectors, the Snapdragon is a perfect example. One misconception many users have about Snapdragon is that it is a processor but Snapdragon is an integrated system. It doesn't refer solely to the processor or to the graphics engine. It doesn't refer to the connectivity assets or the modem individually. It refers to all of them together in an integrated solution.

Looking back at the first snapdragon we did, which was really the first 1GhHz processor in a mobile phone; that was when we really began enabling the market with a much differentiated product relative to what the market had seen before. We are now on our fourth generation product and we will continue investing heavily in the platform as we move forward.

In terms of processing on the ARM-based Snapdragon platform, we currently have a mix of the highest performance and lowest power mix in the industry with our 28nm versions of the device. On the network side, Qualcomm has always been known as a leading modem company and we integrate the modem into the processor. Together with the GPU, the SoC (system on chip) family of solutions delivers one of the most integrated solutions today. In addition to providing us with a leadership position, this is pretty important because it allows our partners to develop unique designs. For example, the first LTE smartphone from Verizon is built around our Snapdragon platform.

And it is not just about hardware. A solution provider needs to be able to deliver software support as well. For example, currently we deliver Android over multiple chipsets at the same time. This is important because there are many tiers of devices, from high-end tablets down to entry level smartphones. With Qualcomm being able to deliver solutions that cover all market segments, we enable our partners to be competitive with a full range of products as well.

We started talking about complexity and finished with integration, but integration is really just the ability to pull together many different types of technologies into one easily deliverable package, whether it is one physical package or one system solution tied together by one set of software. As the market progresses and becomes more complex, fewer companies can deliver on this. That is why Qualcomm is leading the way.

Q: How does this level of integration help you enable your partners?

A: Combining all the levels of integration in our family of solutions allows for more creativity for system houses. OEMs can spend their resources and investment in areas that help differentiate their products. It is a much more efficient way to deliver technology.

In addition, our highly integrated solution actually expands the market by enabling more partners to participate in system design. By providing so much to our partners, we don't limit our customer base to companies with very large engineering teams only. Many more companies are able to go to market with our products.

Q: Are these companies able to take full advantage of your products?

A: Qualcomm is always looking to help our partners optimize the capabilities of our chipsets and we have a number of technology initiatives that look to tap this potential. For example, our Augmented Reality (AR) provides software tools to help develop related apps for devices such as Android smartphones. The platform allows for things such as users being able to interact with their environment using a camera or visual subsystem. It essentially can impose or overlay pictures or graphics to create immersive reality gaming or other types of creative new applications. The classic example of AR is translating signs or creating games that are in the virtual world but you play them by showing pictures in the actual world.

Essentially what drive Qualcomm here is that people don't tap into the full potential of our chipsets, so we try to stimulate people's imagination by making it easy to use, for example by providing an SDK. We also see great opportunity there because on the software side, mobile operating systems are getting a significant amount of developer traction and people are demanding access to those same applications and content everywhere, whether it's through their smartphone, tablet or ultimately their PC.

Q: Can we go back to your relationship with system makers? What is the business model?

A: We think we have a fairly well tested model for how we deliver chipsets to our partners and our customers. It is something we have been doing since 1997. On the phone side, we see ourselves as being the technology provider. Of course, technology used to mean one thing 12 years ago but now it means another thing, but we do provide a technology solution up to a point. And it is at that point that OEMs/ODMs add their value through differentiation.

A great example of an OEM successfully working with this business model is HTC. HTC has done a great job of differentiating themselves in the market using the same technology we deliver to everyone. We provide a lot of technology to them but then they take it and turn it into something that is uniquely their own. We anticipate that same go-to-market model can be used by us for some time in the future.

Q: In what areas to you see growth in the smartphone and tablet market?

A: We are seeing a lot of growth in smartphone penetration, and the segment is now pushing into the tablet world and pushing into the PC world. So it is a big growth area for us. On the tablet side we have announced some significant designs, up to 30 on our next generation snapdragon designs will be on the tablet platform. Overall, earlier this year we announced our 100th Snapdragon device so we continue making strong progress.

Looking ahead, in the smartphone market there are a couple of strong potential market segments. One is at the high-end of the market, which would be delivering new technology and we are positioned very well there. The other strong potential market is the mass market smartphone opportunity. In many developing markets, the first computing device people use to experience the Internet is most likely a smartphone these days. So the reality is that in a lot of geographic regions developing an affordable smartphone is a great opportunity. Many of these markets continue being serviced by 2G handsets but we think there will be mass market 3G smartphones in the near future. In order to service these markets you need to provide an integrated solution such as what I spoke of earlier because of the price points required.

Q: What will be your focus at Computex Taipei 2011?

A: At Computex, Qualcomm will showcase a broad array of smart mobile devices including tablets and smartphones powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon single and dual-core processors. We'll be showing products from Acer, Anydata, Asus, Compal Communications, Compal Electronics, Foxconn, Foxlink, HTC, Lenovo, QISDA, Quanta and ZTE. Qualcomm will also be demonstrating the Snapdragon MSM8660 MDP including the asynchronous dual-core CPU performance and power savings, console quality 3D gaming and UIs and stereoscopic 3D and 1080P capture, preview and playback.

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