Qualcomm: We're betting on Windows for third-place in mobile

When Android first launched, it was widely panned by critics and consumers alike. Five years later, it’s installed on more than half of all U.S. devices. Despite its initial struggles, Windows RT could still strike it lucky, according to two of the chipmaker's product executives.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
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NEW YORK — Windows RT has been dropped by almost every PC manufacturer on the market, bar two major players: the software turned devices and services giant, Microsoft, and its long-term partner and latest acquisition, Nokia.

But executives at Qualcomm, whose chips lay the foundation to the tablet's processor speed, graphics, and networking connectivity, are investing in the Windows RT platform, despite the low uptake by PC manufacturers and consumers alike.

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Raj Talluri and Stephen Horton, two of the chipmaker's product management executives, also say partners are developing about 40 tablets using Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors.

"We have a longer-term view on these things," Raj Talluri, senior vice president of product management for Qualcomm's application processors, told ZDNet. "The Windows RT you know today may not be the Windows RT of tomorrow."

The ailing Windows platform still has a lease of life thanks to Nokia's tablet debut, the Lumia 2520, which was unveiled earlier this week in Abu Dhabi. It's the second Windows RT-based tablet still standing on the market, after Dell, Toshiba, Samsung, and Asus, one after the other disowned the platform after poor user uptake.

Microsoft's Surface 2 lands with a 1.7GHz Nvidia Tegra 4, whereas Nokia chose a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 for its Lumia 2520 tablet debut. Both run Windows RT, the stripped-down operating system designed for low-power chips, based on blueprints by British chip design firm ARM. 

Talluri said Nokia's Snapdragon-powered tablet was better in speed and energy efficiency, than the Surface 2. "It's not a fair comparison," Talluri said, calling the performance of the Lumia 2520 "brilliant."

The executives stressed that Microsoft's decision to run with the Tegra chip was down to "timing." 

Despite the playful banter and friendly rivalry, the elephant in the room was that Windows RT holds just a fraction of the overall market share, compared to its Windows 8 counterpart, which is gaining traction in the enterprise and consumer space month-on-month.

Stephen Horton, a Qualcomm executive focused on tablet product management, compared the niche Windows version to the first mainstream Android device, the T-Mobile G1, which was widely panned by critics when it launched in 2008.

"Now look at Android," he said, hinting at the platform's current reach of more than 51 percent market share, according to recent comScore figures.

Horton admitted that while Microsoft "didn't hit a home run out of the gate on the very first product," the software is "working on it." 

Talluri, meanwhile, said the company invests for the long term and "doesn't judge" the success of platforms. 

Questioning whether Microsoft can take the highly coveted third place slot in the platform rankings, behind Android and Apple's iOS operating system, Talluri said he is "betting" on it, "whether that's Windows Phone, Windows RT, or Windows 8," he added.

On working with phone and tablet makers

Talluri described how his team develops chips in "superset," by pushing a prototype future device to the extremes of performance — for audio, photo-taking, and productivity — so that that mobile manufacturers can get develop the best software features based that take advantage of the full specifications of the chipmaker's hardware.

"[Microsoft] didn't hit a home run out of the gate on the very first product." — Stephen Horton, Qualcomm

Qualcomm began working on the Snapdragon 800 in 2010, three years before it would reach the Lumia 2520. From the early days of chip development, Qualcomm works closely with numerous mobile and tablet makers and feature teams to help its partners advantage of the best the chip can offer.

"It takes us... roughly two years before we get the first [chip] samples," he said. Tablet developers can spend another two years working with the chipmaker before their products launch in efforts to optimize their software and features ready for the end device-using customer.

"We work backwards," Talluri said, such as to work out how many cores the processor should have, what performance it should have, how much memory, and so on. There are "a lot of variables" that influence the product design process.

Talluri described a "partnership" between the three main players in the device ecosystem: chipmakers, such as Qualcomm; platform and operating system makers; and device manufacturers, not before championing developers as the "fourth silent partner in the room." 

On looking ahead and future proofing

Qualcomm innovates long before technologies and features hit the market to keep ahead of the curve.

"It's not as if the market will wait for you," Talluri said.

"We invest disproportionately compared to our competition," he added. "We have teams in every single technology, and they have a roadmap of the next three to five years of what's going to happen."

But it's not that hard to predict where technologies are heading, he admitted. For a time, 2-megapixel cameras may have been the norm, but Qualcomm is always looking to what could be the next big thing to undercut the pace of its rivals. By seeing the trajectory of where device makers want, the chipmaker has a unique insight of what comes next. 

After 4K displays, he said "8K" could take as much as another four years to develop. 

On the next big growth opportunity

The two executives, proud of where Qualcomm is and what the company has achieved in its near-30-year history, is aware of its successes, but doesn't want to keep its eye off the ball.

China and India remains two of the most crucial markets for almost every Western technology company to crack. "It's where the next billion smartphones are," Talluri said. The chipmaker is investing in the billion-plus population markets by prioritizing the more important factors, such as cost and culture, over device performance.

But even with technologies in the "now," such as long-term evolution (LTE), Talluri doesn't want to stray far from the test bed. "With LTE networks driving 4K content, there's still not enough bandwidth," he said: "We still have to figure out a way to get more bandwidth." 

Talluri advocated the need to develop new and emerging technologies, such as low-range small cells, as an emerging technology designed to connect multiple devices at home or in the workplace, in efforts to counteract the modern day technological troubles the industry faces. Cellular networks are struggling as mobile data consumption explodes. But, Horton was also quick to point out that, even three years after the iPad carved out the modern-day tablet market, we are still in the "very early stages" of tablet development.

On what keeps the executives awake at night

"We don't sleep," Horton joked. 

For Talluri, his biggest worry is the pace at which change happens, and the constant battle to keep ahead of the competition.

"We are at the front — no question," he said, citing the company's market position, with Qualcomm silicon in almost every high-end device on the Western market. "But it took us a few years to get there. Now the challenge is to stay there. And the market is not very forgiving to missing cycles."

"Because if you miss a cycle, there will be something else," Talluri said. "That's a challenge, and that's the opportunity."

Shara Tibken contributed to this report. 

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