Qualcomm held a series of analyst briefings this week, divided into a day on 5G, the next-generation cellular technology, and a day on everything else. The message of 5G day was roughly that things are moving apace. More devices are coming to market, and more operators are deploying the technology. A robust roadmap is in place that will lead to denser, faster, more responsive, more reliable wireless services that will, in some cases, be able replace fiber as a primary means of communications and open up new digital interactions in an environment rich in intelligent sensors, endpoints, edge devices, and local and remote services, all sewn together by mutual discovery via streamlined infrastructure.
Not to belittle it, but the 5G story is much the same as it was. Qualcomm’s main job was to convince us analysts that things are on track with examples of commercial success and a peek into the future. The executives made quick work of it. Well, not quick, but thorough.
What drew my attention was Day 2, however, when the other side of the shop showed its wares. Freely admitting that cellular mobile not only pays the rent around Qualcomm, but also forms the basis for many of the spinoff technologies, executives nonetheless pointed out how these distaff areas are also important contributors to the bottom line.
Rahul Patel, Qualcomm’s senior vice president and general manager of the umbrella Connectivity group, laid out the company’s connectivity and networking growth strategy. While bemoaning that roaming from one type of network to another is not yet seamless, he noted that Qualcomm leads the market not only in cellular technology but also in WiFi and Bluetooth, modules of which are often packaged with cellular. He also noted how the technologies often cross-pollinate. For example, multiple-antenna arrays, developed in cellular, are used in the latest WiFi products. Meanwhile, higher frequency wavelengths (so-called millimeter wave or mmWave), pioneered in WiFi, have been adopted by cellular.
After praising two technologies, orthogonal frequency-division multiple access and target wake time, as enhancing power efficiency and optimizing channel usage, Patel laid out a Smörgåsbord of ancillary products: Bluetooth headsets, a wireless “wrist revolution,” homes lit up with digital assistants, orchestrating armies of thermostats, microwaves, lights, smoke alarms, and media players. He pointed to “complete solutions” for the home, with robust 5G customer premises equipment at the hub. He gave a nod to industrial applications of Internet of Things (IoT) technology and just a bit of a peek at the near future. 5G mmWave deployments are underway and lower-band products (below 6 gigahertz) will be out next year. There was some talk of small cells and remote radio heads, opening vistas onto intriguing horizons of dense deployments in which multiple many-antenna arrays with their front ends share a robust back end.
Nick Kucharewski, vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s Wireless Infrastructure and Networking group, gave a greater level of detail. He talked about redefining WiFi performance in terms of rate vs. range (the change in data transfer speed depending on how far the endpoint is from the base station), simultaneous client count, and how long a device takes to initiate, connect, and transfer data.
On the WiFi front, Kucharewski highlighted WiFi mesh networks. In the past 3–4 years, these self-assembling unlicensed networks have become the easiest and most popular way to light up a home network with signal strength in every room. “A blanket of connectivity,” he called it. He also described a home hub, a more powerful node that coordinates all home activity with the cloud. Within that, he placed high on the list of critical functions voice interaction, referring to those digital assistants people are already getting used to. Smarter versions of these products are coming, with solid voice biometrics and security, speech recognition and natural language understanding, source tracking, sound focus, and other features.
Another capability Kucharewsi showcased was radio-frequency (RF) sensor processing. As higher bands are incorporated into WiFi products, higher resolution RF images can be analyzed intelligently without privacy violations. For example, rather than processing images like a camera, RF signal patterns can be intelligently recognized as a dog (60cm height, jumping movement) rather than a person (168cm height, walking movement).
Later in the day, James Chapman, vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s Voice, Music & Wearables group spoke of personal audio platforms. Audio is the unifying principle behind these three areas, although the wearables category covers a wider array of technologies. Chapman shared survey results that indicated consumer preferences. Their number-one concern is audio quality, followed by battery life, with price coming way down the list. Thus, the way is open for profitable premium audio businesses. Bowers & Wilkins, a high-end audio supplier, was on hand to underscore the point. During the demos, I was able to ascertain that B&W’s best headphones’ noise canceling capabilities produce a near-silent backdrop that gives the foreground music stunning contours.
Pankaj Kedia, senior director of product marketing, detailed Qualcomm’s “shareables and wearables” platforms. The segments he oversees, smart watches, kid watches, and smart trackers, are doing well in the United States and China, he said. The wearables category is expanding and now includes “heat to toe” products, including glasses, headsets, cameras, watches, medical bands, fitness trackers, smart cards, smart apparel, and smart shoes. Although the term “tracker” does not hit American ears lightly, it doesn’t seem to bother Chinese listeners, who seem to be gobbling these things up. There are trackers for kids, pets, elderly, possessions, and fitness applications. In kid watches, there are now children’s brands, operators’ brands, and consumer electronics brands. Smart watches break down into luxury, fashion, sports, and general purpose categories.
Jeff Lorbeck, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s IoT group laid out the company’s strategy in that area. This will ultimately be a large category with many, diverse applications. The IoT group is leveraging assets from R&D and mobile chipsets to create new solutions in, for example, energy and metering, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, digital signage, smart cameras, mobile asset tracking, and retail. Despite challenges related to security and privacy, technology fragmentation and siloing, a lack of standardization, spotty connectivity, a proliferation of network and connectivity options, and legacy infrastructure, these markets are developing fast. Qualcomm has pilots and commercial deployments in point-of-sale terminals, electronic shelf labels, beacons, cameras, interactive kiosks, digital signage, handhelds, routers, augmented-reality glasses, scanners, and robotics. The industrial IoT appears to be a particularly promising area.
Although these non-cellular-mobile products represent distinct markets, some of them nascent, others growing, together they represent important future revenue streams for Qualcomm. And adhering to the usual development pattern, the company is investing now to create product-markets that will truly produce in future years.