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Qualcomm: Interview with a cellular vampire

A trace of humanity now?

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One issue that Jacobs dealt with, and which later the CTO, Dr Roberto Padovani, touched upon, was the idea that Shannon’s Law, which governs the amount of data that can theoretically be delivered over a digital radio signal, has more or less been reached. And that from now on, there will be little point in trying to send more total data over any given radio connection. So in order to drive the mobile internet, and fuel the mobile data revolution, networks must be built differently.

The current architectures that will drive base stations closer together, for instance over femtocell base stations, usually rely on one piece of spectrum for the femtocells and another for macro and pico cells, due to interference concerns. Instead, these interference issues need to be solved, and the entire spectrum used dynamically across all base stations in a network, using dynamic interference management (which is now in its infancy). In this way Jacobs and Padovani outlined the technical wars that the Qualcomm engineers are fighting with adversaries such as Texas Instruments, STMicro and Broadcom over the next five to ten years.

But with that solution Jacobs promised cellular penetrations of 300 per cent of a given country’s population and with the addition of machine to machine devices, billions more opportunities for newer, innovative, cheap cellular chips in the near future.

One example of machine to machine communication was the Amazon Kindle electronic bookreader, which is believed to have shipped around 350,000 devices since it launched earlier this year. The Kindle delivers books using Sprint’s cellular network, as 500 KB files, taking just a few moments to arrive.

The cellular download cost is added to the price of the book and the customer has no idea of how the book arrived, it just does, and Qualcomm says that for this amount of data, cellular networks are by far the most efficient method of delivery, cheaper than driving books round in a truck. MP3 players and portable media players which use similar systems will follow, Qualcomm confidently predicts, and each device needs a cellular chip, in Kindle’s case a Qualcomm CDMA chip.

Machine to machine applications can be thought up for any type of data transfer for a specialized function – there is a Motorola device which is a mobile TV player, but which has a cellular chip in it purely for software downloads and DRM key updates. There are monitoring devices which use the cellular network simply to report back how many miles a driver completes, or the location of a lost PC (with a GPS chip in it) or a lost cargo in the same way.

That rivalry we referred to with Apple was delivered by Jha with nothing but praise for the Apple iPhone design, “The power consumption on 3D graphics has to come down,” he said. “The Apple iPhone display pipeline and graphics are deeply integrated and we need to do the same on a single chip, to empower other devices to have the same kind of graphics capability. It is not a trivial problem. When a handset is rendering a web page, it has to deal with six or seven different media types, served from 10 or 12 different servers. The iPhone has done a good job of this, but Qualcomm thinks it can do a better one at the chip level.”

Up to, but not including, a laptop

Jha went on to talk about the new types of devices that Qualcomm can now consider driving, which effectively is everything up to, but not including a laptop. “We are working with Android, Linux and Windows, and in the future we might work with Symbian and we have started to look at a lot of device designs which use a 4 inch to 12 inch screen.”

Jha called these Pocket (or pocketable) Computing Devices (PCDs) instead of the Intel Atom acronym of Ultra Mobile Personal Computers (UMPCs) or Nokia’s Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), but they are essentially the same. The Qualcomm watchwords are “always on, and always connected,” looking forward to a new genre of devices which can operate on one battery charge for an eight-hour working day, where a cellular connection always makes the internet available.

Qualcomm earlier this year showed two such devices, Fairbanks and Anchorage. The Fairbanks has 16GB of storage bundled, offers MediaFLO TV, GPS and a 3 MP camera and is in essence a portable media player. We have a problem with a device which doesn’t allow the basic applications of word processing, email, spreadsheets and presentations alongside these qualities, because otherwise it is only a leisure device.

But the “Anchorage” is a Snapdragon with a 1.0 GHz processor which operates at just 500 milliWatts when in portable mode, and which also has WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, and a cellular connection and a qwerty keyboard. This is just like the Nokia N810, except it is also a phone.

Later the Snapdragon will move multicore with a quad CPU chip, and will offer one core working when in mobile mode, with the rest cutting in once the device is docked. In that mode it will be able to drive a big TV screen at 1080p encode or decode. Qualcomm says the idea is that these devices will be sold by operators, which might subsidize the device itself, which has a low Bill of Materials, and then sell extras such as docking stations.

“The Snapdragon is at 500 milliWatts now and will go to 300 milliWatts once we do the design in 45 nm,” said Jha. “We believe that when these devices ship you will be able to source 16GB of storage for around $30,” he added.

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