Qualcomm talks smartbooks and other wireless devices

Qualcomm isn't known as a consumer electronics company, a fact that CEO Dr. Paul Jacobs acknowledged in his first CES keynote.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Qualcomm isn't known as a consumer electronics company, a fact that CEO Dr. Paul Jacobs acknowledged in his first CES keynote. "Qualcomm is not exactly a household name," he told the audience. "How many think we run a stadium?" But with smartphones turning into computers, and gadgets of all types including laptops integrating 3G wireless, the wireless chip company is suddenly front and center.

Qualcomm is best known for CDMA technology, which he noted had plenty of doubters when it was first developed in the early nineties. Early on Qualcomm recognized that people would want to use their cell phones for data, and they helped introduce one of the first smartphones back in 1998. The brick-like Palm PDQ wasn't a commercial success, but he said today more than 170 companies use Qualcomm's 3G technologies, and not only in phones. "I'm here to talk about the convergence of wireless and consumer electronics because it's happening in a big, big way right now," he said.

Jacobs talked about Qualcomm's support for many of the mobile operating systems out there, and he announced that the company would also design chipsets and software that supports Google's upcoming Chrome OS. This isn't to surprising since Qualcomm has worked closely with Google on the Android OS). Qualcomm has its own mobile platform too, and HTC Peter Chou came onstage to talk about how his company is using Qualcomm's BREW platform to build a less expensive smartphone for a broader audience. HTC is better-known for its high-end Windows Mobile and Android smartphones, but the HTC Smart will use HTC's own "Sense" user interface on top of BREW. AT&T also announced this week that it is developing a phone based on BREW.

While cell phones remain a growing opportunity, 3G wireless is finding its way into all kinds of devices. "People don't really think about the Kindle as a cell phone," Jacobs said. "It's just the way that books show up on the device." One of these devices is the smartbook, which falls somewhere between a smartphone and a netbook. Qualcomm is hardly the only chipmaker creating processors for this market, but so far it seems to be the only one working with major computer companies. Jacobs said there are 15 manufacturers working on 40 different smartphones and smartbooks based on this 1GHz Snapdragon processor. Lenovo CEO Yuanqing Yang said his company sees both of these--smartphones and smartbooks--as key categories, and his company announced the industry's first Snapdragon smartbook, the Skylight, earlier this week (see Lenovo's laptops shake things up at CES). "Traditional notebooks will still play a key role in the Internet age, but people want smaller devices that are easy to connect to a network, and that are always-on," Yang said.

Lenovo isn't the only computer company working on Snapdragon. Todd Bradley, who heads up HP's Personal Systems Group, gave a brief glimpse of a netbook running Android, which he said will have all-day battery and always-on connectivity. "We see connectivity as the next evolution in mobile products," Bradley said. "If I shut the lid, the device stays connected to the network and still e-mail. When I power back up it is instant-on connectivity so e-mail is already there waiting for you."

In other meetings, I've seen demonstrations of this prototype netbook, and it's interesting to see some of the interface tweaks the company has made to make what's really a smartphone OS more suitable for a smartbook. HP's version has a dock along the bottom, tabs so you can open multiple Web pages at the same time, OpenOffice for reading and editing Microsoft Office documents, an e-mail program that can connect to Exchange using Dataviz's RoadSync, and new apps for photos and music. These are the sorts of changes PC companies will need to make for smartbooks with alternative operating systems to compete with Windows 7 netbooks. HP's exact plans for these kinds of device are still a little unclear though. "We're not going to make any announcements today but you know how interested, and focused and frankly committed we are to this space," Bradley said.

Some of the more interesting parts of Jacobs address had to do with the company's efforts in developing countries, where many people have access to wireless networks but not landlines with fixed Internet access. The company's Wireless Reach program consists of 37 projects in different parts of the world from distributing connected PCs in Nepal to improving the safety and productivity of fishermen in India with a wireless application to providing telemedicine in Peru. Here in the U.S. Qualcomm is working with a school in rural North Carolina to gauge how wireless impacts education. "It's really is not the distraction that teachers thought," Jacobs argued. "It's really helping students to learn. He added that wireless e-readers using Qualcomm's Mirasol display technology--an alternative to Prime View's E-ink--would also help students with overloaded backpacks.

Healthcare is another big opportunity for wireless companies. Wireless devices will be used to help patients collect a wide range of data from electrocardiograms and ultrasound images to glucose levels, sleep phases and calorie consumption, and transmit it to doctors. Dr. Eric Topol, Chief Medical Officer of West Wireless Health Institute, said this started with fitness products, and more specifically with the Nike+ products for the iPod and iPhone, but has now expanded to clinical tools. Topol demonstrated a series of products including Philip's fitbit; Zeo's Personal Sleep Coach; the Corventis Piix device that measures heart rhythm, heart rate, tissue conductance and even posture in real-time; and GE's Vscan, a handheld ultrasound.

Finally, Jacobs talked about Qualcomm's products for entertainment both in the home and on the go. D-Link CEO Tony Tsao showed his company's upcoming Rush wireless routers, which use Qualcomm's N-Stream technology to distribute different HD video streams to different rooms throughout the home simultaneously. Last year Qualcomm introduced a standalone FLO TV devices for TV on the go (it is also available on certain cell phones from AT&T and Verizon). Jacobs said that Audiovox, which already sells an in-car FLO TV solution, would introduce a portable DVD player with FLO TV as well as a sleeve for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

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