From a Trickle to Flash Flood: Qualcomm’s Father-Son Dynasty Follows Course of Mobile Data Services

The co-founders who introduced San Diego-based Qualcomm’s wireless digital technology in 1989 envisioned from the early days that it would be ideal for the Internet. But Irwin Jacobs says now even he’s amazed at how many things a cell phone can do today.

A new generation of innovators is now using Qualcomm’s proprietary technology to develop new cellular devices and services in such fields as healthcare, transportation, and energy—and “None of that was quite obvious to us in the early days,” Jacobs said in a presentation at a wireless conference in San Diego yesterday. Yet the Qualcomm co-founder and his son, Qualcomm chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs, also say the wireless industry is pushing the limits of cellular networks by cranking out ever-faster wireless devices that feature more and more mobile data services. Many of the new products just over the horizon are driven by Qualcomm’s own advances in technology—including 4G smartphones, netbook computers, and palm-size wireless TVs.

Rapid changes in cellular technology and the potential for network constraints became part of a wide-ranging keynote address at the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment conference in San Diego. Unlike most keynotes, though, Qualcomm’s father-and-son dynasty appeared together onstage for what was intended to be a living-room discussion with CTIA president Steve Largent, the former Oklahoma Republican Congressman and Hall of Fame pro football receiver.

Irwin Jacobs

Irwin Jacobs

One of their most interesting revelations came while Irwin, who turns 76 later this month, was discussing the technology advances that led to the current generation of smartphones. Despite rapid technology advances, the market for mobile Web-based services was slow to develop, and Irwin observed, “The iPhone was really a major breakthrough, in terms of developing a simple interface.”

Paul added, “We always used to talk about developing the killer app, and the killer app ended up being a simple user interface,” and he says most advances in computing capabilities and graphics technologies are now focused on making the interface even simpler to use. Paul, who was named Qualcomm’s CEO in 2005 and chairman earlier this year, says he envisions a future in which wireless technologies are “increasingly embedded in everything,” enabling a homeowner to use their cell phone to remotely control their TV, stereo, and lights.

According to Irwin, wireless networks provide cellular coverage for roughly 80 percent of the world population today, and he estimates there are now 4.5 billion cell phone users around the world. People use wireless phones in ways he never conceived when Qualcomm was founded in 1985, and Irwin says the range of capabilities and applications allows Qualcomm to have tremendous influence.

“People everywhere want to have a phone,” Irwin says. “A key aspect of that is that the price of both the service and the phones are coming down. I remember saying maybe someday we could get the price of phones to $100 and now in India you can buy phones for $20 at wholesale.”

The industry’s explosive growth also prompted a discussion about spectrum constraints.

Paul Jacobs

Paul Jacobs

“We’ve gotten to the point in the labs where we have done what we know how to do to optimize any given radio wave,” Paul says. What he describes as “all-you-can-eat data plans” also are now forcing wireless operators to focus on what he calls the “backhaul” capacity of conventional phone networks to absorb all the incoming traffic from cellular networks. “We actually in some cases have higher data rates over the air than we do back to the core networks, and that’s not a good thing,” Paul says.

His description of increasing wireless traffic helps to explain Qualcomm’s efforts to encourage the development of so-called femtocells, a kind of micro-cellular access point typically designed for use in a residential or small business environment. Last month, for example, Qualcomm announced a licensing agreement that enables Global Wireless Technologies of Minneapolis, MN, to develop, manufacture and sell femtocells based on Qualcomm’s proprietary digital wireless technology.

Irwin and Paul also discussed wireless innovations, although it was unclear in some cases if the products they described are under development:

—Qualcomm unveiled plans earlier this week to introduce a hand-held television for its satellite-based Flo TV service that has a 3.5-inch screen and a suggested retail price of $250. Irwin and Paul each held up one of the Flo TV-branded mobile devices, which will be available for sale in time for the holiday season. Qualcomm doesn’t disclose the number of Flo TV’s subscribers, but they aren’t where the company wants them to be, according to COO Len Lauer, and the new gadget appears to be one more way to attract subscribers to the service.

—Paul described a wireless charging system that looks like a platter and will be capable of recharging multiple mobile devices at the same time. He says, “You just put the stuff down on the platter and it gets charged.”

—Irwin says he’d like a mobile device equipped with facial-recognition software and that can also determine who all the people are in a room by identifying the cell phones they’re carrying. He says as he gets older, it gets harder and harder to remember the names of all the people he meets. He might have been kidding, though, because he still seems pretty sharp to me.

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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