Qualcomm: why mobile chip design is a triathlon

3rd May 2013 | 17:28

Qualcomm: why mobile chip design is a triathlon

This ain't a single sport competition

If you witnessed and haven't forgotten (how could you?) Qualcomm's CES 2013 keynote, then you know the company is brandishing a "Born Mobile" identity as it navigates the chippy waters of 2013 and beyond.

The company toes the heavy line that the computing world is increasingly defined by smartphones and tablets. Qualcomm's aim is to position itself at the forefront of the shift, providing chips to the hottest, genre-defining mobile devices of the moment.

So far it's been a robust push, at least on the smartphone side: Qualcomm's newest silicon, the Snapdragon 600, is housed in the Samsung Galaxy S4, the HTC One and LG Optimus G Pro while phones like the Nokia Lumia 920, BlackBerry Z10 and Sony Xperia Z feature earlier designs.

Qualcomm's dragons are in some tablets too, like the Dell XPS 10 and Samsung Xperia Tablet Z, but Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Anand Chandrasekher said during the company's "What's Next in Mobile" conference earlier this week that its tech should come to more tablets in the near future.

Dell XPS 10

Closer down the road is the company's Snapdragon 800 chipset, capable of hitting 2.3GHz. It's heading into production sometime this month and though the 800 won't officially arrive until the second half of the year, its UltraHD capture and playback capabilities are whetting many mobile appetites.

We caught up with Chandrasekher for a one-on-one chat to talk about the reception of the Snapdragon 600, the incoming 800 and why he thinks Qualcomm is fit to win the mobile chip design race.

"Generally the feedback for the Snapdragon 600 has been positive," Chandrasekher said. "The best indicator of feedback you have is the design pipeline. We have some 850-plus launches and then the design pipeline has about about 450-plus designs. That's not just the 600 - there's a lot of stuff in it, but it's certainly a part of that."

Snapdragon 600 in S4

Feedback on specific Snapdragon 800 features happened in earlier development days, he explained, and now the focus is to bring the 4K-capable chip to consumers.

"As for the Snapdragon 800, we've had generally positive feedback on that as well. Most of our engagement with our customers [now] will be how do we speed things up, how do we get things out to the market place faster. Those are the sort of things they'd be worried about at this point."

Mobile's moving might

While there's evident enthusiasm for smartphones and tablets, PCs (in the laptop/desktop sense) are a bit of sticking point. Whereas Chandrasekher spoke effusively during his conference presentation about Qualcomm silicon heading to products outside of handsets - specifically tablets, smart TVs and cars - the CMO seemed to suggest devices like notebooks will follow only as the mobile market evolves to influence other products.

"We're certainly interested in the tablet domain, and we've been making investments in that space for several years," he said. "Our view effectively is that between mobile and tablets, computing gets redefined.

"So if you think about these things happening, you're touch interface and the way you interact with the device first started on your smartphone. That has heavily influenced the way you've interacted with your tablet. Tablets happen to be a very touch-oriented interface.

"The tablet will fundamentally reshape computing, whether it's notebook or other, simply because of the comfort level with that sort of touch-oriented UI will start to permeate other form factors as well.

"We are extraordinarily bullish about phones and tablets. We continue to invest very strongly there, and as those products shape other product categories in their wake, we would hope to follow along in the consumer paradigm and consumer pattern with our products there."

Slide from CMO speech

Qualcomm's customers are first and foremost the product partners that find a home for its chips, then send those devices consumers' way. Chandrasekher sees Qualcomm's ability to influence product trends - such as touch - as the oil that lights the innovation lamp.

"With touch, we built the capabilities in," he said. "In that particular case, our customers are the ones who innovate those technologies. They are the ones that create the market, but we hopefully provide the fuel for them to be able to do that by planting the flag early so that they can take advantage of it and innovate as they see fit."

It's hard to find a mobile operating system that doesn't have at least one handset housing a Qualcomm-stamped product in one form or another, yet Chandrasekher was reticent to talk customers by name.

Although Qualcomm's silicon is used inside the iPhone, Chandrasekher declined to comment on the possibility of future Apple collaborations - "we typically don't mention specific customers by name" - and wouldn't play favorites when it came to the phone manufacturers its chips best mesh with.

But as the company looks to build loyalty among all smartphone buyers, he was more forthcoming.

"For the consumer that is looking for the best smartphone, they should make sure it's powered by a Snapdragon," he said, before adding with a laugh, "that would be the sound bite."

800 and triathlons

With months to go before the Snapdragon 800 is officially unleashed, Chandrasekher managed to impress the chipset's power on the conference crowd by playing a trailer for Star Trek: Into Darkness in crisp UltraHD and booming 7.1 surround sound, all from two 800 MDP tablets.

Though a lone Snapdragon 800 can run with both features, the Qualcomm PR team told us two were used for logistical reasons.

"The thing I like a lot [about the 800] is the feature I talked about and we demonstrated, which is UltraHD plus 7.1," Chandrasekher said. "I think that is earth-shatteringly beautiful.

"I like that a lot because to get that capability, you have to have a home theater experience. [The Snapdragon 800] allows you to get that on that kind of form factor [taps his tablet] or that kind of form factor [taps his smartphone] on the go. That's never been possible before. That's huge."

"Wait until you've heard it on your normal headsets," he added. "It's even more mind blowing."

Star Trek Into Darkness

As Qualcomm looks to innovate in - and redefine - the mobile space, Chandrasekher noted that while competitors abound, the company is positioned to excel in the mobile chipset design race.

"The mobile industry is obviously a very, very sought after market, so we have a lot of competitors," he said, declining to name any specifically. "What differentiates us? We are effectively born mobile.

"That has a number of implications to it. Part of that is we know where the land mines are, and knowing how every operator runs their network slightly differently. If you are building a chip that is designed to run on an operator's network, you've got to know how to do that. You can't keep learning it every time you do it."

He circled back to a metaphor used during his conference talk, one that likened SoC success to a triathlon. To excel, he explained, requires many parts - the CPU, GPU, multimedia, DSP - working as one while not burning a whole through consumers' pockets and performing with optimal power efficiency.

"Born mobile, it's a triathlon," he told us. "It's not a single sport event. Of the many companies that were born mobile, I think we're the only one left standing."

Anand Chandrasekher Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 Snapdragon 800 BlackBerry Z10 Galaxy S4 Samsung Apple HTC One Sony Xperia Z Nokia Lumia 920 Dell LG Optimus Pro G features interview
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