EETimes.com – Qualcomm brews plan to boost struggling lines

EETimes.com – Qualcomm brews plan to boost struggling lines.

SAN DEIGO — Qualcomm Inc. is currently riding high amid strong demand–and constraints– for its traditional cell-phone chip products.

During the company’s Uplinq developers’ forum here this week, Qualcomm, based here, launched a number of new initiatives for many of its lesser-known products. But some of those wares–such as its Brew operating software (OS) technology, the MediaFlo mobile TV line and Snapdragon chip products–are either lagging or losing steam.

The company also hopes to jumpstart–and generate some new business–for its embryonic efforts in 3-D chips, augmented reality, MRAM, peer-to-peer and other newfangled technologies.

Qualcomm is rushing into new markets for good reason: It needs some new engines for growth beyond its traditional cell-phone chipset business. That has not been easy, as it is struggling to expand beyond its core market.

For example, Qualcomm may unload or restructure its ownership in MediaFlo amid lackluster sales, according to reports at Uplinq. On the IC side, Qualcomm has been shipping Snapdragon, a chip line for mobile Internet devices (MIDs). Snapdragon is gaining some traction in limited smartphone designs, but the chip is ”late to the party’’ and behind Texas Instruments Inc. and others in the MID chip space, said Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts Co.

Another concern is Brew, Qualcomm’s software platform that is billed as an OS for mobile devices. Some see a shakeout in the mobile OS world and Brew could be on the outside looking in–or one of the losers–especially as the development community embraces its rivals, such as Apple’s iOS, Android, among others. Brew is still viable and has generated a lot of traction, ”but only in CDMA,’’ Strauss said.

However, the tide is turning in favor of Brew, said Paul Jacobs, president and chief executive of Qualcomm. ”We’re getting a lot more support’’ for Brew, Jacobs told EE Times in a brief interview. AT&T, China Telecom, Korea Telecom, Verizon and others have endorsed or renewed their efforts with Brew, he said.

In another positive development, Qualcomm’s cell-phone chip business is robust right now. ”There is a lot of demand,’’ he said. ”We have supply constraints.’’

Qualcomm had a somewhat sluggish start in its 2010 campaign. In 2009, the company was ranked as the world’s sixth largest chip maker, up from eighth place in 2008, according to Gartner Inc. It had sales of $6.49 billion in 2009, down 1 percent over 2008.

But Qualcomm slide from eighth to 12th place in the rankings for the first quarter of 2010, according to iSuppli Corp. For some time, the average selling prices (ASPs) for Qualcomm’s baseband chips have fallen amid competition from Broadcom, Infineon, MediaTek and ST.

In the June quarter, the company has regained its momentum. Royalty revenues are up. And shipments for the company’s MSM cell-phone chip line is ”strong at 93 million (to) 100 million’’ units, up from 93 million in the previous period, said Mark McKechnie, an analyst with Gleacher & Co., in a report.

That’s not what worries analysts, carriers, developers and OEMS, however. Qualcomm will likely remain the leader in the baseband market. At Uplinq, many were likely having the same thoughts: What will happen to Brew, and, to a lesser degree, Snapdragon?

Brew was launched nearly a decade ago as a software programming platform for mobile devices. Earlier this year, Qualcomm rolled out Brew Mobile Platform (MP), which is said to be a ”mass-market mobile operating system platform.’’ Brew is apparently the software platform for 250 million mobile devices worldwide today, according to Qualcomm. In total, Brew has generated a total of some $3 billion worth of business.

”Brew MP is a low-end handset OS which, along with Qualcomm’s (chip) architecture, will target smartphone functionality at feature phone prices,’’ McKechnie described in his report.

But Brew is finding itself lost in the developers’ shuffle amid the sudden craze for new and competitive offerings, such as Apple’s iOS and Android. Other mobile OS/software platforms include Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7, HP/Palm’s Palm/WebOS and Nokia’s various OS offerings.

Qualcomm’s Jacobs sees a fragmentation in the mobile OS world. Others see a shakeout. This poses a problem—and an opportunity–for Qualcomm. The company’s chipset group not only supports Brew, but also Android, Blackberry, Palm, Windows and others.

Qualcomm’s chip group is software agnostic and it lets the customer decide which OS to support. Obviously, though, Qualcomm would prefer to sell and bundle Brew with its chipsets.

One big carrier, Verizon, has seen a meteoric rise for its sales and development activity in the Android camp. In contrast, the carrier has seen ”declines in our Brew revenues’’ over the last year, said John Stratton, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Verizon.

”The situation concerns us,’’ Stratton said during a keynote at Uplinq. “Is the Brew business worth saving? We are still committed to the Brew platform.’’

Still, there is an issue for Verizon and others: There are too many mobile OS offerings and carriers must make some tough choices and lay down ”the right bets,’’ he said.

Verizon claims to have 56 million devices in the field, which incorporate Brew. But for some time, Verizon’s efforts with Brew have been in a ”frozen state of animation,’’ he said.

To jumpstart Brew, Verizon Wireless this week rolled out an Open Catalog program for Brew, thereby enabling more applications for the OS technology. It will also help reduce developers’ time to market, while allowing them to market their applications directly to consumers.

Verizon has also reduced its porting and certification costs for Brew applications. It also made available for customers the so-called Xiam, which is Qualcomm’s recommendation engine for mobile devices. This is ”really a revitalization of the Brew experience for our customers,’’ he said.

To help its own cause, Qualcomm this week rolled out an application store to bring its Brew applications and services to consumers in open markets. The first application store will be managed by Sina, a Web portal in China.

The open market application store will provide Chinese consumers with access to a full range of paid and free content, apps and services for download, said Andrew Gilbert, executive vice president and president of Qualcomm Internet Services and Qualcomm Europe.

Meanwhile, another carrier, AT&T, also moved to jumpstart Brew. Earlier this year, it rolled out a line of mid-range handsets, dubbed Quick Messaging Devices, based on Brew. By year end 2011, about 90 percent of AT&T’s devices in this segment are planned to be based on Brew. AT&T announced that Samsung will be its first device maker to launch a Quick Messaging Device featuring Brew. HTC, LG and Pantech also are building Brew-based devices.

But in the same release, AT&T also announced plans to launch five new devices from Dell, HTC and Motorola–based on the Android platform. For its part, Taiwan handset maker HTC Corp. supports Brew on select devices in India, Singapore and the U.K., said Martin Booth, technical product manager for HTC’s U.S. subsidiary, based Bellevue, Wash.

For HTC, Brew is geared for ”lower-cost, entry-level devices,’’ he said. ”There is an opportunity for Brew in emerging markets.’’

But one of HTC’s best sellers is the Droid Incredible, a smartphone based on Qualcomm’s 1-GHz Snapdragon chip and Android. The smartphone is being offered by Verizon in the United States. ”It’s been a runaway hit,’’ Booth said. ”Android (enables) a richer, deeper smartphone.’’

HTC also sells other mobile devices based on Snapdragon. Qualcomm itself has been shipping the 1-GHz part for some time, mainly for smartphones. But as recently reported, Qualcomm has delayed a promised dual-core Snapdragon processor for smart books from 2009 until the second-half of 2010, according to a company executive.

The dual-core Snapdragon QSD8672 is based on two Scorpion cores. The Scorpion is itself a Qualcomm custom core compatible with the ARMv7 instruction set. The QSD8672 device was scheduled to be the first of a third generation of processors in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon family.

Qualcomm’s dual-core device is based on 45-nm technology. The next device, based on a 28-nm process, is supposed to tape-out this year, according to Qualcomm.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon ”has been shipping about a year,’’ said Forward Concept’s Strauss, but the company was actually ”late to the party’’ in this segment. Qualcomm claims Snapdragon has garnered 140 design wins, but Strauss said Snapdragon is really ramping in only five devices, mainly smartphones. This includes the mobile devices from Google, HTC and Toshiba.

Freescale, Intel, Marvell, Nvida, TI and others are pushing competitive chips. TI, for one, is ”outshipping (Qualcomm) in terms of units’’ in this space, he said. TI has garnered design wins in Motorola’s Android phones, as well as devices from Palm, Samsung, among others, he said.

So far, most of the overall chip shipments in the MID space involve high-end smartphones. With the exception of Apple Inc.’s iPad, the smart book, tablet and related segments ”are still developing,’’ said Raj Talluri, vice president of product management for application processors at Qualcomm.

For the MID segment, TI apparently sells an application processor, but not the baseband. In contrast, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon incorporates the baseband modem, a graphics engine, WiFi and other functions on the same device. This makes it a more compelling solution, added Mark Frankel, vice president of product management at Qualcomm.

And contrary to popular belief, Qualcomm claims it is gaining traction for Snapdragon. Qualcomm recently displayed a range of Snapdragon-based devices, including smartphones, tablets, and smart books. Snapdragon-powered devices include Acer’s Liquid and neoTouch smartphones, Dell’s Streak 5-inch Android tablet, HP’s Compaq Airlife 100 smart book, HTC’s Droid Incredible and Nexus One smartphones, Huawei’s S7 tablet and Lenovo’s LePhone smartphone.

In an effort to propel more designs, Jacobs during his keynote revealed a new development platform for Snapdragon. The platform includes a Snapdragon device, the MSM8655 cell-phone chipset and other features.

This week, Bsquare Corp., a software provider, announced it will offer a software development platform based on Qualcomm’s MSM8655 Snapdragon chipsets to the application developer community. This MSM8655-based Snapdragon mobile development platform–dubbed Snapdragon MDP–is expected to become available in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Initially Bsquare will offer the MSM8655-based Snapdragon MDP with Android, but models are also planned with other operating systems, including Brew MP.

The MSM8655-based Snapdragon MDP will be available in the fourth quarter of 2010 but can be pre-ordered immediately for $995 through Bsquare. With each purchase of a Snapdragon MDP, purchasers will also receive an 8-GB SD card, an HDMI cable, A/V, USB cable, battery charger, a Quick Start Guide and one hour of support from Bsquare.

Qualcomm wants to offer a one-stop shop for MIDs and handsets alike. Besides Snapdragon and development platforms, the company also provides the LCD screen. Last year, Qualcomm rolled a 5.3-inch full-color non-volatile MEMS-based display. The display features 1,024 by 768 pixel resolution and around 220 pixels per inch. The Mirasol technology, which Qualcomm acquired in 2004, does not require a back-light and is reflective.

Qualcomm is developing related technologies, which are in R&D. For example, it is working on 3-D devices based on through-silicon-via (TSV) technology. And a new and surprising player could soon invade the magnetic RAM (MRAM) industry: Qualcomm. And the cell-phone chip giant is getting help from one of its foundry partners: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC).

At various conferences in recent times, Qualcomm and TSMC have jointly presented papers on MRAM. The two companies also have been experimenting with spin transfer torque (STT) MRAM, and are working on a 32-megabit embedded memory solution at the 42-nm node, according to sources.

With the move, Qualcomm could be looking to grab more IP share of the cell-phone market. It is already a major player in the baseband segment. Now, it wants an embedded MRAM play, possibly turning the industry upside down.

Embedded MRAM could ”replace embedded SRAM plus NOR as well as embedded DRAM and NAND,’’ according to one source. Qualcomm ”is interested in MRAM because of its speed, power and non-volatility.’’

MRAM is a memory that uses the magnetism of electron spin to provide non-volatility. It is supposed to deliver the speed of SRAM with the non-volatility of flash in a single unlimited-endurance device. STT-RAM is a second-generation MRAM technology.

At Uplinq, meanwhile, Qualcomm also touted other technologies, many of which are just emerging from R&D. For some time, Qualcomm has been pushing augmented reality as possibly the ”next big thing” in mobile and other platforms.

”Augmented reality allows computer-generated content to be superimposed over a live camera view of the real world,” according to Qualcomm. ”The concept has seen growing interest among developers for its potential to create applications that are more intuitive and interactive.”

It is also based on computer vision technology recently acquired from Imagination Computer Services GmbH. Qualcomm moved to accelerate the technology by unveiling plans to offer an augmented reality platform and software development kit (SDK).

Toy maker Mattel Inc. is one of the first consumer products companies embracing augmented reality. It has used Qualcomm’s SDK to bring the classic Rock ’Em Sock ’Em game to the modern era. Additionally, Qualcomm has collaborated with leading game engine developer Unity Technologies in the arena. A beta version of the SDK will be available to developers this fall.

In addition, Qualcomm this week also talked about proximity-based peer-to-peer technology. This would enable various devices to directly sync with different networks without going through the central network. Qualcomm is devising technology based on software, which would be provided via an open source model, said Rob Chandhok, senior vice president of software strategy at the company. This in turn could open up the market for social networking, gaming and other technologies on mobile devices, he said.

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