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Qualcomm: Interview with a cellular vampire

A trace of humanity now?

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In the end this is a serious bid to stay the right side of operator buying power and set up a counter bid for the general purpose cpu designs of Intel, when it is NOT being used as a full PC. Qualcomm made it clear that if Intel genuinely wanted to attack the portability problem from a power consumption point of view, then it would be successful, but that so far it had remained more committed to getting more processing power. “Intel’s heritage is best performance, and ours is low power, we have a longer history of doing this than Intel,” Jha said.

These form factors are about throwing mud at a wall and seeing what sticks. The PC is unassailable, and the handset market will eventually eat up the MP3 player market – will there ever really be a device that sits between the handset and the PC? Well to a certain extent there already is – the BlackBerry. And although this is defined merely as a handset that does email, then similarly a handset which does email but also allows you to download and view attachments, lets you work on the internet all day, tells you where you are, acts as a phone or a Skype phone and still fits in your pocket, sounds fairly compelling. Even if it also sounds just like a phone – but better.

If this attack is aimed at anyone other than Intel, then it is the application processing power on handset devices, so far dominated by Texas Instruments.

But then Len Lauer – who has since taken Jha’s position as COO, before that at Sprint, and most recently EVP and group president in charge of Qualcomm’s services - talked about the shift at Qualcomm towards services. "How can a chip company offer services?" you may ask, but Qualcomm has given this some imagination and talks about enabling every type of service from news delivery to games and from advertising to social networking, and Lauer’s view is that software components laid on top of the chip architecture – but underneath actual applications, which you might call service enablers – is the sweet spot for Qualcomm.

Platformation

Lauer counts seven separate service-enabling platforms already in the Qualcomm camp in MediaFLO: Its Xiam profiling and recommendation engine, the Firethorn Mobile wallet, the well established Brew application delivery platform, its new Plaza 2 widget management tool, its GPSOne nGeo location systems and its QES mobile data management stack that is the guts of Kindle, and telemedicine systems it’s working on, as well as transportation and construction services which it has offered in the US for a few years now.

At first pass this looks like a mishmash of inventions and acquisitions which are being pushed and pulled into a strategy, but the company has already found some synergies. For instance the Xiam recommendation engine can pick the right adverts to show to mobile TV customers. Our point was that this is far more powerful when not attached to the MediaFLO mobile TV system, but free to work with ISDB-T or DVB-H or any other system, and Qualcomm would not rule this out, but will first and foremost integrate it with MediaFLO.

Of course Qualcomm rightly points out that MediaFLO is not just a mobile TV platform, it is a data casting service so that data (and adverts) can be pushed to devices which may go with a TV program. This could be a pitcher’s statistics, or a list of survey questions or a coupon, and this can then be highlighted by the Xiam engine. Link this to the Firethorn electronic wallet which already works with five of the top US banks and the two top cellular operators in the US in Verizon and AT&T, and suddenly you have a system to keep coupons and offers, and a payment mechanism which itself can find uses for the Xiam recommendation software.

Firethorn gives a mobile user a way to grab an online offer the moment he sees it, as well as offering an online banking system, a way of transferring mobile gift certificates and a way of holding transport tickets – all of which can work with near field communication system when these become widespread in the next two to three years.

We suspect that Qualcomm should not try to become a services play overnight. But as long it will make it easier to buy into Qualcomm chips, so long as it -

  • Tries to integrate these building blocks into a single set of tools
  • Continues to support these service enablers from the chip level up, bringing solid integration
  • Asks itself first “can an operator use this service” rather than a consumer, so that it stays true to its existing fan base.

So once you get to know it, is the vampire any more “human” than before his interview? This all depends on just how firmly into its past these royalty squabbles have gone. If Nokia and Broadcom are the only two to get some change out of battling Qualcomm, then the intellectual property issues that have dogged cellular for the past 15 years or so may take a back seat.

That could leave a new Qualcomm, more sure of its chip design heritage than ever, pushing on with service creation technologies, and mounting a challenge on the world’s basic device building blocks. It will also mean a classically US company has begun the task of integrating with the rest of the globe, having gone some way towards accommodating the powerful European forces in mobile. And after all, as everyone knows, the vampire originally came from Europe anyway.

Copyright © 2008, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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