Past, Present and Future of Mobile at the Computer History Museum

Introduction:

Paul Jacobs - Image courtesy of IntelFreePress
Paul Jacobs – Image courtesy of IntelFreePress

On August 8th, Computer History Museum CEO, John Hollar engaged in a spirited conversation with Qualcomm’s Chairman and CEO, Paul Jacobs. A wide variety of topics were covered – from the early days of CDMA to the present dominance of wireless data technologies (3G+ and 4G-LTE) throughout the world, to what the wireless future might bring. Mr. Jacobs also provided a glimpse of what new R&D projects Qualcomm was working on. He touched on wearable computing devices and briefly showed a smart wrist watch he was wearing to the audience.

This conversation was part of the museum’s Revolutionary lecture series. The Abstract is found here.

There were approximately 160 international students in the audience that were participating in the People to People Technology summit at Stanford University. Many of the students crowded around Jacobs after he left the stage to ask questions and pose for photos.

The Conversation:

Mr. Jacobs first spoke about Linkabit- a technology company his father Irwin co-founded in 1968 (along with Andrew Viterbi and Leonard Kleinrock). “TDMA at Linkabit was the equivalent of CDMA for satellite systems,” he said.

Paul wanted to join a start-up after finishing his PhD at UC Berkeley and “get involved in robotics.”  Instead, he joined Qualcomm- an Irwin Jacobs led spin off of Linkabit- in 1990. Jacobs related his experiences as a young engineer working at Qualcomm, including power control and speech compression technologies. Power control was necessary to make CDMA viable for battery operated mobile devices. In the early 1990s, speech compression was needed due to bandwidth constraints of wireless transmission systems.

Paul spoke extensively about his personal career path at Qualcomm and how he learned first-hand that the best technology doesn’t always win or become the standard. “You have to build alliances and co-operate with multiple participants” to progress a wireless standard. Jacobs said there was a tremendous amount of competition – like a “holy war”- between TDMA and CDMA for use in cell phones in the mid 1990s. Paul said it wasn’t until after he “took over the company in 2005, that the wounds were healed.” [In July 2005, Jacobs became the CEO of Qualcomm].

From the very early days at Qualcomm, Jacobs believed that “wireless data transmission (as the access network) would be the way the Internet would get proliferated across the world.” And the first high speed wireless data transmission system from Qualcomm- EDDO- started to make that happen. Paul noted that wireless communications capability is now embedded in smart phones, digital cameras, and gaming systems. He predicted, “soon it will be in a wireless wallet and wireless wearable devices.”

The mobile ecosystem today is “a very competitive landscape,” he said. You need to combine many advanced technologies into a mobile gadget (like a smart phone). These include: fast processors, multiple communications interfaces, graphics capability, and power control (there are others but Paul did not delineate them).

Jacobs acknowledged Qualcomm was late to embrace tablets, saying “We’re a slow starter,” and admitted that Windows RT, “has not turned into a great business for us, but we’re optimistic.” He noted that the company now has 40 tablet designs in progress.

“It’s amazing how much capability is going into a smart phone,” Jacobs proclaimed. In particular:

  1. IEEE 802.11ac (next generation WiFi standard) capable of 300M b/sec data streaming
  2. 41 megapixel camera (included in Nokia’s smart phone)
  3. Much improved graphics capability (presumably due to graphic processor chips)
  4. Much higher wireless access speeds (through 4G-LTE today with LTE Advanced in the future)

Paul later said that 7B smart phones will be sold from 2012 to 2017, with over one half of those being lower end mobile devices for emerging market countries.  Today, there are 3.3 to 3.5B people around the globe with mobile phones of one type or another (of course, many in developed countries own several mobile devices).

Jacobs surprised this author when he said that Qualcomm spent $4.5B on R&D in 2012. Where do their R&D investments go?  Paul said there are over 500 designs in progress. While Qualcomm licenses the ARM instruction set (for use in their Snapdragon chip), they design their own microprocessor. The company also makes graphic cores, video codecs (including ultra HD) and radio Front Ends (FEs) that operate over multiple frequencies.

Paul said there are now 47 different frequency bands in use around the world by wireless operators that own licensed spectrum. It’s highly desirable for a single mobile device to work across multiple frequencies, he said.  But that can only be accomplished by flexible front ends that can frequency hop to use different bands.

“Displays use a lot of power, so Qualcomm is working to drive that down (for longer battery life in mobile devices).” They are supporting Windows RT and despite it’s slow start, are, “optimistic about it.”

Jacobs revealed he was wearing a “smart watch” of unknown origins. When moderator John Hollar asked him what brand, he rolled up his shirt sleeve to cover the watch. We guess that’s because Qualcomm (along with other companies such as Intel and Google) are working on wearable computing devices like smart watches, Google glasses (with built in WiFi) and medical electronic sensors.  And Qualcomm didn’t want to pre-announce a smart watch at this time.


Stay tuned for part II of this article which will cover “digital brains, digital sixth sense vision,” the Internet of Things (IoT) and other Qualcomm research projects.  Also, how the mobile communications industry might cope with the end of Moore’s law (as limits on transistor spacing on a chip is reached).

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