More than Mobile
Qualcomm, one of the communications industry’s foremost technology providers, gives its forecast for the future. A future that will be about more than just faster phones, Christo van Gemert explains, thanks to the company’s lineup of powerful and multifunctional mobile chipsets, designed to fulfil its vision of an “Internet of Everything”.
Cast your mind back to the phones from a few years ago: before we had our iPhones, Androids, ’Berries and Symbians. While phones were slowly starting to gain smart features – features that took them beyond just being used for text messages and phone calls – they were still hamstrung by the older technologies. Data connectivity was the limiting factor. Without a faster connection to the Internet, the average user was not going to bother using his phone to retrieve a party invitation via email and then use online maps to get him to the destination. Once there, he would probably have shot some video of the fun, but chances were slim of it being uploaded to YouTube. Nor was he going to update his Facebook status to let people know about the good time he was having.
Jing Wang, executive VP and president of global business operations for Qualcomm agrees. He says: “The wireless experience has gone through a radical change over the past decade. If we take a quick step back, 10 years ago the mobile device was just a phone – voice was the dominant application. Data was around but still in its infancy. Today, innovations and technology advancements have enabled the wireless industry to impact almost every aspect of our lives. This evolution has also created huge demand for wireless data.” This new demand, driven by smarter consumers and innovative services, needed hardware to back up its growth. If people were going to start using Twitter and Facebook every day, from their mobile devices, they’d need faster connectivity. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) was the first of the faster data connectivity services, but this second generation technology was quickly replaced by 3G. Now, we have 4G knocking on the door. And we’re seeing this need for ubiquitous connectivity spread – it’s no longer just our phones that we want connected to the Internet, but also bigger, smarter mobile devices with more functionality. Tablets, for example. Wang agrees. “The next big industry shift we see is integrating connectivity into all types of consumer electronic devices. Mobile devices — particularly mobile phones and tablets — are poised to become the user interface for consumers’ connected, digital worlds. Effectively, these devices will become remote controls for your life, allowing you to manipulate, control and interact with the things around you. They’ll also provide real-time access to a variety of information, from the Internet to hyper-local content.” New services are being introduced each week. Consumers want different ways of experiencing online content that suits their tastes. Whether it’s reading news, watching video or keeping in touch with others. People are not necessarily finding new ways to use their devices – their needs are driving what these machines are capable of, including being integrated with existing daily routines. “Accomplishing this will require some innovative new capabilities. Peer-to-peer communications without the need for intermediate infrastructure will enable people to connect their devices to one another on an ad hoc basis. Consumers will also need devices that support multipleradios frequencies – including various flavours of 3G and 4G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – and which can move seamlessly between these technologies. Qualcomm has excelled in integrating its software and hardware to provide these capabilities, so we’re in a good position for this next evolution of the wireless industry,” Wang adds.
Power for the people
Qualcomm’s solutions aren’t just those that power the wireless radios in mobile devices. At the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) the company launched its new Snapdragon chipsets – superfast processors with integrated functionality. These will enable future devices to do more than what we currently see, or expect of them. Wang points out that tablets are one of the devices that will be driving adoption of the new, faster chips. He highlights that the evolution isn’t going to see tablets replacing smartphones or computers, but rather complementing this existing ecosystem. “The tablet meets the needs of users who want more multimedia capabilities and who are demanding a device that is designed for a personal experience on the go. Over time, some users may feel that a tablet can serve as their primary device, and this may also be the case for emerging markets,” he states. Backing up this prediction is a stable of more than 10 different OEMs, with over 20 tablet designs – all based on Snapdragon chipsets. These are big companies, like Dell with its Streak and China’s Huawei and its S7 tablet. These and others boast Qualcomm’s next-generation dual-core chipsets that run at speeds between 1.2GHz and 1.4Ghz. And that’s just for 2011. Contrasted with the processors in desktop computers, which breached the 1GHz barrier in 1999 (with only a single core), these advances in mobile technology are nothing short of remarkable. They’re bringing desktop-like speeds and experiences to mobile devices. Wang hastens to add that the processor-speed wars of years gone by were fought at the expense of efficiency and battery life. “For fully mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, power efficiency is very important,” he says. “With Snapdragon, we’ve taken a different approach to the market by providing an unprecedented combination of 3G, powerful multimedia capabilities and optimised power consumption – all in a single chip – to enable a new generation of smart mobile devices.” This is in contrast to desktop and notebook computers, which both still use discreet components for each of these duties. Separate chips are required for networking, general processing and graphics. Qualcomm focuses on offering a single-chip solution, drastically reducing power consumption and design complexity. All of this means that it’ll be easier for a consumer to take more of their digital life with them, wherever they go. Games, videos, Internet access and more – with the same speed and responsiveness as they’d get on a desktop computer. The silicon onslaught doesn’t stop there, though. Wang holds out the promise of even more power, speed and battery life with an upcoming offering. “In February, we announced our new Krait family of quadcore chipsets based on a new 28-nanometer micro-architecture. The first chip products in the Krait family will deliver speeds of up to 2.5GHz per core, but it will also minimise power consumption and heat generation. The small size and power efficiency make the Krait chips ideal for new devices that are thin and lightweight.”
A view of the real world
More speed and lower consumption are all good, but Qualcomm isn’t resting on its laurels. It works closely with its customers to solve technical challenges and bring products to market even sooner. Wang says that the company’s vision of the future is for all devices to be connected, be it traditional consumer electronics, appliances, vehicles or healthcare devices. It wants to create an “Internet of Everything”, where devices all talk to one another and provide seamless access to all the content and services people use, no matter where they are. One of the technologies it’s working on to realise its future vision is augmented reality. This technology merges real world information with that in the digital world, through the cameras in mobile devices. Users can fire up their cameras and get information on their surroundings: tourist attractions, shops, restaurants and more. Instead of giving people a map of a city, a smartphone can be loaded with an interactive city tour. Travellers can use augmented reality to get a closer and more detailed look at fascinations, rather than driving past in a tour bus.Wang provides more examples, such as games that use a player’s environment, along with camera-equipped smart toys. “Media publishers can add new experiences to paper and print material such as magazines, books and newspapers. Marketers can create more interactive marketing pieces and product packaging. There are lots of possibilities – the only limit is the imagination of developers.” That last bit is quite important, as Wang points out that augmented reality in mobile applications is a relatively new market. Vision-based systems, using multi-megapixel cameras, require high processor speeds and powerful graphical capabilities. Devices with the necessary memory and processing potential have only recently come to market, many based on the Snapdragon processors. To help those developing applications and services optimised for the Qualcomm platforms, the company has released a free software development kit. Wang reasons: “By making it easy and cost effective for developers to create augmented reality applications, we’re aiming to give consumers more functionality in their smartphones and ultimately increase the benefits of having our Snapdragon chips in these devices.”
Seeing in the sun
All of these exciting technologies can still be let down by the weakest link in the chain. In the case of mobile devices, their limited use in outdoor environments is a big focus area for technology companies. We’ve seen manufacturers provide tougher devices, with dust- and water-proof seals or shockproof designs. Corning has made its name with Gorilla Glass, the scratch and shatter-resistant touch panels used in many manufacturers’ mobile handsets. Qualcomm also has something up its sleeve to help overcome one of Mother Nature’s hazards. In this case: the sun. For years it’s been nearly impossible to use full colour liquid crystal displays in sunlight. Turning up the brightness to maximum could alleviate the problem to a degree, but hampered visibility in direct sunlight is something we’ve become used to. Qualcomm’s answer is a new display technology called Mirasol. Mirasol displays use very little power and one of the inherent design advantages is a highly reflective internal structure that enables viewing even in direct sunlight. Wang says the company’s main focus for Mirasol is in the e-reader market, where it aims to offer full colour displays that are viewable in direct sunlight, with refresh rates capable of displaying video – without adversely impacting battery life. Wang is confident that no other display technology offers these four key traits. With demand growing for multimedia devices capable of displaying video content, Qualcomm has invested US$975 million in a facility to boost production of Mirasol displays. It will come online in 2012.
Connectivity: now and tomorrow
Augmented reality and more-usable displays are important advances, but both still rely on web connectivity to perform at their best. That Mirasol display is useless if it’s not letting you watch YouTube videos while you lounge next to the pool, and an augmented reality application is only as good as the information it downloads from Google or Wikipedia. Wang is enthusiastic over the changes taking place in Africa. Not only have the undersea cables given the continent immensely fast connections to the rest of the world, the wireless infrastructure has also grown. He points out that 2G to 3G migration is healthy in Africa, citing market competition and the availability of affordable handsets that drive the shift to wireless data. 3G and other wireless technologies have already overtaken fixed-line installations simply because they offer more economic efficiency. Wang quotes analysts who say that 3G connections are expected to grow by more than 25% in 2011, with a big part of the growth coming from regions that are still on 2G technology. Asked about 4G, he says: “From our perspective, we feel good about 4G, both as an extension of the 3G network as operators around the world deploy HSPA+, and as a nextgeneration solution with LTE. In terms of the chipsets, we’re sitting in a very good position because operators need to have backward compatibility to maintain the continuity of their services. They need multimode devices that support 2G, 3G and 4G in the chipset and make it seamless to the consumer. That’s what we’ve focused on.” The various generations of data connectivity aren’t interoperable, and require separate chipset features to ensure compatibility. Qualcomm has built both chips and software to make sure that people moving between regions that have new, 4G technology and older 3G technology will not have to deal with any complications. They will simply experience slower speeds on the older networks. Wang is really excited over his company’s cheaper 3G technologies, though. He says that in the past year Qualcomm has introduced new base designs for low-cost 3G handsets – something with direct benefits for Africa. He gives examples of Qualcomm working together with handset manufacturers and providers in countries like Kenya and South Africa, where solutions have been custom-designed for the market’s needs – be it for affordable 3G-enabled feature phones, or video streaming services. “Working with our partners, we’re developing technologies that will help make 3G services more accessible to everyone,” he says. Qualcomm is clearly driving progress in the right direction and securing its place in the technology history books. Dual and quad-core processors in mobile devices were unthinkable just a few years ago, but here we are on the eve of a more converged computing lifestyle than we ever imagined. Wang is almost hesitant to make a prediction for the future, given the radical changes we’ve seen in just the past five years. He also points out that there is a finite amount of wireless spectrum and a theoretical limit to wireless data speed. “We’re working hard on developing ways to use spectrum more efficiently and to support more capacity and more subscribers. As mobile data usage grows over time, improving network performance will require moving antennas closer to the end-users,” he explains. “It will be interesting to see how people use their mobile devices a quarter century from now!”