Qualcomm Offers Cash Incentives, Broader Support, in Bid to Energize App Developers (and Partners Like Twitter)

After taking a hiatus in its annual Brew developers conference last year, Qualcomm raised the curtain yesterday on its new and improved Brew MP (mobile platform) at Uplinq—a reincarnated developers conference that recasts the two-year-old Brew MP as a “fully realized” mobile operating system that is broader, deeper, and more developer friendly.

Following a multimedia music video intro that blared the pop hit “Hey Soul Sister” by Train, Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs opened the conference and almost immediately addressed the old Brew versus new Brew question.

“Why did we change the name to Uplinq and how is it different from Brew conferences?” Jacobs rhetorically asked. “The Brew conference was focused on just one platform. Uplinq is focused on many platforms, because we support many operating systems on our chips… We’re working to optimize the integration of our hardware and software, so your applications run better on Qualcomm’s chips and especially our Snapdragon chipsets.”

From there, Jacobs moved into a coordinated presentation, which included a bow to AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint (the three U.S. operators working with Brew MP), and a variety of partners developing new Brew MP-based apps that were at times dazzling. (A webcast of Jacobs talk is here.)

The biggest crowd-pleaser was a demonstration by two Mattel executives, including the vice president of technology, Peter Marx, who played an augmented reality version of “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.” While the robots existed only virtually—on the display screens of a pair of Nexus One handsets (running Android 2.1 on a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset)—the amusing battle included thunderous, clanking sound effects and showers of sparks with each metallicized blow that prompted cheers from the audience. Augmented reality, Marx said, “allows us to do things that were unimaginable not that long ago. Think about what we can do with Barbie and with Hot Wheels.”

Following another demonstration of an augmented-reality computer game by David Helgason, CEO of San Francisco-based Unity Technologies, Jacobs announced Qualcomm’s first augmented-reality developer challenge. The Qualcomm challenge offers a total of $200,000 in prizes for the top three teams that create “the most creative augmented reality apps,” using Qualcomm’s just-released software development kit. The first-place award is $125,000, second-place is worth $50,000, and third is $25,000.

In this same vein, Qualcomm separately announced a similar contest fordata-casting applications for Qualcomm’s FLO TV, which has been lagging behind in the company’s expectations. While the FLO TV network currently broadcasts only cable TV programs to certain mobile devices, Qualcomm has hinted that its FLO TV technology also could be used to transmit Internet videos and other digital files in data-casts. Jacobs noted during his talk that FLO TV could download the iPad version of Wired magazine, which is reportedly about 500 megabytes, in a fraction of the time that would be required on most wireless networks.

In addition to seeking to energize its development community by offering incentive cash prizes, Qualcomm’s Jacobs also tried to defuse app developers’ past complaints. As Qualcomm’s senior vice president of engineering, Steve Sprigg, explained in a later session, a common complaint among app developers in the past was that Brew APIs (application programming interfaces) were not implemented consistently, and not all APIs were available on all devices. “It means that it’s harder to get apps to market,” Spriggs said. With Brew MP, however, Spriggs says Qualcomm is trying to drive consistency throughout both its hardware and software development, and Jacobs says the company is striving to set standards with device makers on things like memory storage and screen size.

Qualcomm also sought to curry favor with app developers by recently launching an app development website and app store that includes product recommendation technology developed by Qualcomm’s Xiam and Vive, a social networking feature that enables online shoppers to see which apps their friends are recommending. Jacobs said Qualcomm also has worked with Sina, a new apps store in China, to bring Brew MP applications and services to Asian buyers. Such capabilities, Jacobs explained, are intended to help app developers boost their sales by helping buyers find what they want in their online shopping forays.

So far, Brew MP hasn’t proven to be as popular with mobile developers as the iPhone or Android—and Qualcomm clearly has designed the Uplinq conference to make its Brew MP platform more appealing to developers. Yet, as Jacobs explained, Qualcomm now also supports the mobile operating systems for Android, Windows Phone 7, Palm WebOS, and BlackBerry. “So no matter which platform you choose to develop for,” Jacobs said, “Qualcomm has got you covered.” (Well, almost covered.)

Jacobs also emphasized that Qualcomm remains committed to its Brew MP operating system, even if it might be destined for price-sensitive users at the low end of the mobile market. The Qualcomm CEO later told reporters that Brew MP now seems likely to expand into other markets, but even so, he still sees huge opportunities for Brew MP as the operating system of a “smart phone for the masses.”

As an example of how Brew MP’s market could expand, Jacobs introduced Kevin Thau, who oversees mobile strategy, products, and partnerships for Twitter. Thau told the audience that over 50 percent of Twitter’s active users are tweeting from their mobile devices, and so Twitter’s development team “got really excited” by Qualcomm’s concept of developing a low-cost “smart phone for the masses.”

“We decided if you were to marry the Brew mobile platform with Twitter, the ultimate content source for finding out what’s happening in real time,” Thau said, “we thought we could put our resources behind a really compelling application and get that out in the market.”

Tonight, Verizon is hosting a party for the 2,100 people who registered to attend Uplinq. They’re blocking off the streets in San Diego’s downtown gaslamp district—and the headliner band playing is Train.

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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