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Qualcomm showing signs of turning soft with age

New hardware hard to see at annual show'n'tell

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Analysis There's more to learn from the absences at Qualcomm's annual showcase than from what's actually on the shelves, with colour screens and wireless charging pushed out by social networking and augmented reality.

Every year, Qualcomm Europe demonstrates its cutting-edge tech to network operators, media folk, and employees over consecutive days. But while last year the company announced it had started production of its Mirisol screens, and demonstrated WiPower wireless charging, both innovations were curiously absent this year, which instead saw social networking apps and cloud-based aspirations on your identity.

BREW-MP, Qualcomm's pre-emptive answer to Apple's closed ecosystem, barely warranted a mention, and despite lots of talk about web apps and AJAX, the WAC (a mobile-AJAX standards body, of which Qualcomm is a member) was entirely absent from the company's slides, words, or (we suspect) thoughts.

What was trumpeted was the first deployment of the recently acquired iSkoot, which is now aggregating social identities for Vodafone Spain. That probably bodes badly for Vodafone's 360 product, which is supposed to do the same thing, but Qualcomm painted it as a network-optimisation tool rather than an identity land grab.

Identity aggregators do reduce network traffic. Rather than running Facebook and Twitter clients on a handset, each of which connects to their respective servers, one has a single client which connects to a single server which in turn connects to the various social networks. That reduces network traffic, but it also puts one's identity in the hands of whomever runs that single server, which is why operators are so keen.

They're not the only ones: Samsung's Bada operates the same way, and third parties such as Cerulean Studios (of Trillian fame) also provide single-point convenience.

All joy with AllJoyn?

Even less typical for Qualcomm were demonstrations of AllJoyn: Qualcomm's open-source API for negotiating peer-to-peer connections between devices. Devices advertise a service, and other devices can connect to it, much like the Bluetooth Service Discovery Protocol, only network independent (eventually – today AllJoyn only supports Wi-Fi).

AllJoyn was seen doing lots of cool things, like multi-player gaming and such, but the API is also available as a free download for Android/Windows/Linux for those who wish to bundle it with their own apps, at their own risk of course.

Qualcomm itself has thousands of patents related to peer-to-peer communications, but none have been thrown into the AllJoyn pot. One might hope that publicity alone would prevent Qualcomm from suing someone using the API it provided, but we wouldn’t like to bet a business model on it and the company won't discuss how AllJoyn developers might protect themselves.

Considering that patents make up so much of Qualcomm's business you'd have thought they'd be keen to talk about them, but even when questioned directly the company is dismissive of the current patent battles besetting the mobile business, responding that they'll blow over in a few years and it's really no concern of Qualcomm's.

That attitude is forgivable, given that Qualcomm was the first to feel the impact of an ITC ban on imports – one that was enforced despite the company's direct appeal to the president. That patent spat (with Broadcom) cost Qualcomm more than £600m in 2009, but has indeed "blown over" with the industry continuing much as before except that every patent accuser now goes running to the ITC as well as the courts.

Having settled with its own rivals, Qualcomm can be forgiven for sitting back and watching the next level up slugging it out for a year or two.

But while Qualcomm's forays into software are very media-friendly – augmented reality showing trailers in place of DVD covers, and a gesture-based UI allowing control of a phone with a wave of the hand (using ultrasonic echo location on a prototype handset) – they also put the company into an ever-more patent-leaden field, and one where the barriers to entry are significantly lower.

When colour screens go dark

We asked about Mirasol and WiPower: two technologies that demonstrated so well but are curiously absent this year.

Last year we were told that 5.7-inch Mirasol screens were already in production, this year we're told (on enquiring) that they're still refining to get the product perfect. We've been seeing prototypes of Mirasol for two years now, and bloody impressive they are too, but until it can be reliably manufactured in quantity it's just vapourware.

Wireless charging technology WiPower seemed to be getting traction in January, as Qualcomm signed non-exclusive letters of intent with Duracell and PowerMat. But it turns out those letters were very non-exclusive, as the two parties have now teamed up without mention of Qualcomm, or WiPower.

Qualcomm's ARM-based Snapdragon system-on-a-chip continues to dominate in ARM-based devices; multiple cores, higher speeds and VoIP and IMS are both baked into the silicon in the latest version. But when asked about Near Field Communication – short-range radio links which would surely be a core business for Qualcomm – the company responded that it was waiting for standards and didn't want to commit.

Qualcomm has lots of cool things to show off, and it still makes money on every 3G handset sold. It even makes money on every 4G handset, only not quite so much, and across the range it looks as though the company is forgetting its hardware skills and becoming beguiled by how much easier it is to make software instead. ®

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