Qualcomm – who are they and what do they do?
Recently, I have been learning more about the company that is probably behind the processor in your tablet or smartphone. The American chip company Qualcomm has been in the game for more years than I had realised. After spending time with them at Mobile World Congress, I thought I’d share what I learned.
Founded in 1985, Qualcomm, an abbreviation of Quality Communications, was responsible for products and services such as the OmniTRACS satellite locating and messaging service used by long-haul trucking companies. Later it went on to develop CDMA which brought about 3G.
Now, with decades of collaboration with all major mobile ecosystem players, Qualcomm is in a unique position to pave the way for the next wave of breakthrough technologies. That collaboration was very apparent at Mobile World Congress 2018. Everywhere I looked there were stands proclaiming the advent of Gigabit LTE and 5G; that’s before I even mention the devices powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform, such as the Samsung Galaxy S9, Sony XZ2, and more.
Let’s face it, there is a good chance your smartphone is being powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon System on Chip (SoC).
Development of CDMA
It could be argued that Qualcomm is the most pioneering company in the mobile communications market. Back in the day of analogue mobiles, just as things were switching over to digital, Qualcomm invented CDMA. This tech was far superior to the then standard TDMA.
Eventually, the CDMA standard would prove itself as part of the 3G revolution with the Verizon 3G network being based on CDMA.
As you can imagine, being such a forward thinking company they have a number of patents to their name. In fact, they have tens of thousands of them, some of them being almost prophetic in nature. For instance, they patented a keypad lock similar to what you now find on all devices, but they registered it back in 1999. Amongst the rest, however, two stand out for me as being things we couldn’t do without now. First is assisted GPS, filed in 1998 just 3 years after GPS was fully operational. Also, at that time most GPS tech weighed over 1KG. Secondly, airplane mode which was patented back in 2000.
This vast patent portfolio is probably one of the critical factors in Qualcomm fending off competing companies and dominating the market.
More recently, Qualcomm has been one of the key players in the development and deployment of 4G and 5G.
They view themselves more as engineers than anything. In fact they’ve spent $49 billion on research and development over the past 10 years.
What I find odd, though, is that they don’t make their own chips.
Top fabless chip maker
Qualcomm are behind many technology firsts including the Scorpion mobile CPU. This was the first 1GHz CPU and the chip behind the first Android device.
However, while they have developed the technology, they are a fabless company. This mean they don’t technically make, or fabricate, their own chips.
Furthermore, unlike other chip-making companies, such as Samsung and Intel, they don’t even develop their own consumer technology.
Rather than putting them at a disadvantage, this could actually be one of the driving factors behind their success: By not monopolising their own technology but, instead, licensing their tech to any company that is willing to agree to their licensing agreements. This has meant that their technology has been adopted by nearly all the major tech brands in the world and used for a wide variety of applications.
On the subject of licensing, one key deal for Qualcomm was their agreement with Apple in the early days of the iPhone, back in 2011. Apple had to buddy up with Qualcomm in order to enable their new phone to support CDMA. However, this was the start of a tumultuous relationship due to the significant royalties Apple had to pay for the licensing agreement. It doesn’t look as it has done either party much harm though.
From Processors to System on Chip (SoC)
I still tend to call the Snapdragon range processors, but this is a misnomer. These days they do so much more and have become an entire System on Chip.
These chips literally have a full system built into it. So, you get the CPU, GPU, Audio processor, WiFi, mobile network chips and more. Think of it like all the components of your PC being integrated into one tiny chip. In fact, while we wrongly call the SoC a processor, the CPU part of the chip only represents 15% of the SoC.
Qualcomm doesn’t just make the SoC for mobiles though. They produce the technology in most WiFi routers and are the leading company developing the superb wireless mesh technology. They are also the only company still manufacturing the technology behind powerline products, as seen in TP-Link, Netgear and Devolo devices.
Naturally, it is the SoC in smartphones that have made Qualcomm (almost) a household name. It was great to see several devices powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform being announced at MWC. These included the Galaxy S9 and S9+, Asus Zenfone 5 and Sony XZ2. These are also ushering in a new wave of Gigabit LTE connectivity for commercial phones.
With Snapdragon 845, devices support download speeds of up to 1.2 Gbps. Furthermore, they are designed to deliver the best mobile experiences and a major step forward on the road to commercially available 5G devices in 2019.
The mobile platform also enables advanced features such as on-device AI processing, immersive XR experiences, and increased battery life.
Also announced at the Barcelona bash was the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 700 Mobile Platform Series. This is intended to bring premium-tier technologies and features, such as on-device AI, to more affordable devices. The first raft of devices to feature this chip will most likely appear in China.
As mentioned earlier, you couldn’t move for the buzz being created by 5G. Of course, it was nowhere bigger than at the Qualcomm booth. Here they demonstrated what they were doing in order to make 5G a commercial reality.
It was great to see examples shown in real-world conditions, modeling two metropolitan cities: Frankfurt, Germany and San Francisco, California.
They actually put 5G NR (New Radio) to work in both of those major cities. The test had to factor in the cities’ individual geographies, user demands on the network, and cell site locations. The first simulation revealed almost a 900% increase in download speeds, from 56Mbps to 490Mbps. The second simulation showed an impressive 2,000% increase in download speeds, from 71Mbps to 1.4Gbps.
I reckon it might be time for some of us to ditch our crummy broadband connection soon.
5G will also find its uses in industry or, as Dr Andreas Muller from Bosch put it, Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0 features automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things, cloud computing and cognitive computing.
XR / AR / VR
There are some very interesting things happening with Qualcomm and XR or “Xtended Reality.” XR encompasses both AR and VR and is another area coming to the fore thanks to their Snapdragon 845 Mobile VR Platform.
The reference design for the next wave of VR headsets incorporates foveated rendering in its four cameras to track your gaze and adjust the resolution on focused areas. Basically, the stuff in your peripheral view has less detail than that where you are actually looking. This is all designed to deliver the high-end experience you want whilst saving power without sacrificing performance.
Connected cars. Connected everything
Qualcomm is also designing a future that would make driving more efficient, and enjoyable.
Premium-tier Snapdragon Automotive Platforms feature built-in machine learning capabilities. They also pack the Snapdragon Neural Processing Engine (NPE) which is designed to deliver a powerful, energy-efficient solution for supporting the next level of automotive intelligence, comfort, convenience and personalisation for embedded infotainment systems.
Additionally, Qualcomm Technologies’ Automotive Platforms are designed to support a broad range of additional wireless and networking technologies. These include 4G LTE and 5G roadmap, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), with optional support for Direct Short-Range Communication (DSRC) and Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X).
Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything is where it starts to get even more interesting.
C-V2X complements other vehicle sensor technologies. By doing so it extends the vehicle’s ability to ‘see’ further down the road. This provides a higher level of predictability for enhanced safety and autonomous driving.
For instance, the sensors in your car can detect if there’s another vehicle around the corner. Likewise, it can tell if the traffic lights are about to change and start to slow itself down in preparation. Furthermore, as most of us carry a connected device in our pockets, cars could be able to sense pedestrians too.
Additionally, connected cars could be rerouted around cities to avoid traffic jams, barriers or accidents, for example. They could detect that a driver or passenger is in distress, and take the appropriate action.
Needless to say that Qualcomm are already busying themselves with the next tech to come. But, I hope that this brief overview of the company behind most of our mobile devices has been interesting for you.
I, for one, cannot wait to see what comes next (as long as it is not our robot overlords – I’m not quite ready for that yet).