Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs is Retired, But Not Retiring

When Qualcomm co-founder and longtime chairman and CEO Irwin Jacobs stepped down as chairman of the wireless giant last month, he said he was taking another shot at retiring. Jacobs, who turned 75 in October, told The San Diego Union-Tribune after Qualcomm’s annual shareholders meeting that his first attempt at retiring didn’t take, presumably because he remained active at Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) after his son Paul succeeded him as CEO four years ago.

As a retiree, though, Jacobs has still been keeping a fairly busy schedule. In February, he gave an extended lecture at MIT’s School of Engineering on “providing chips and technology for a world with 4 billion cellular customers,” in which he provided some intriguing up-to-date industry analysis, which has been embedded at the bottom of this report. And on Friday, Jacobs was a speaker at the La Jolla Research and Innovation Summit, which was organized by Connect, the San Diego nonprofit that promotes technology innovation, as a showcase of local technology for venture investors.

“I was asked to forecast,” Jacobs told the San Diego audience, “but I must admit I’m a terrible forecaster. When I started Qualcomm in ’85, I told my wife we might have as many as 100 employees if everything goes right.” Today Qualcomm has a global workforce of roughly 14,000 employees, including more than 9,000 in San Diego.
In discussing Qualcomm, Jacobs also steered clear of making any forecasts, although he made several interesting historical observations.

—At Qualcomm, he said, “We made a strategic decision early on that we really wanted to focus on innovation.” Because it was difficult in the beginning, however, for Qualcomm to gain market acceptance for its CDMA digital wireless technology, it became necessary for the company to make its own handsets and related cellular equipment. Once Qualcomm became established, Jacobs said, “We sold off the handset division to concentrate on the chips and software.”

—“All phones are getting smart,” Jacobs said. He held up a copy of the New York Times business section with a story headlined, “Laptops? They Are So Yesterday. Try a Netbook” and described the progression of smaller and more powerful computers from desktops to laptops and netbooks. At the same time, he noted that mobile phones are progressively getting bigger and more powerful, “So they’re going to meet in the middle, where we’re getting colliding galaxies here or something.”

—Amazon’s Kindle “will be the only way you read a book in the future,” Jacobs said. “It’s got a Qualcomm chip in it, and all the data going to Amazon goes through our data center.”

In his February lecture at MIT, Jacobs repeated one of the mantras that kept him excited during the early days at Qualcomm. “I always said we’ve got at least 10 years of excitement ahead of us, and every year of that 10 years moves out a year,”Jacobs said.

His MIT lecture is embedded below, or you can watch on MIT’s website by clicking here.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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