Scenes from the Uplinq Conference: How Qualcomm’s Strategy is Playing Out

If there was a single moment during Qualcomm’s mobile developer conference last week that showed just how much the San Diego wireless giant has changed over the past decade, it would have to be when Qualcomm chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs introduced Nokia CEO Stephen Elop as a keynote speaker.

“Up next is somebody that you probably wouldn’t have expected to see at a Qualcomm event,” Jacobs told the Uplinq attendees Thursday. “It was just a few short years ago that Nokia and Qualcomm were beating each other’s brains out in the court of law.”

Once Elop took the stage, though, it became clear that the former head of Microsoft’s business division has been working with Qualcomm since Sept. 21, when Elop took the top job at Nokia. He told the Uplinq audience he met with Jacobs for the first time that same day, and recalled how Jacobs told him that Nokia was “a bit of an enigma” and gave him a list of 10 things that Nokia needed to change. Among the top action items, Elop said, was that Nokia needed to “open up—open up to partners, customers, and developers.”

Because of Qualcomm’s continuing support of Nokia, Elop said, the Finnish cell phone maker will release its first Windows-based devices this year. From there, Elop launched into the heart of his presentation, about the industry’s “fundamental shift from a battle of devices to a war of wireless ecosystems,” chiefly involving the Apple iOS, Google Android, and Windows phone axes of power.

Whoever wins, Qualcomm’s strategy has become clear. The world’s largest wireless chipmaker wants to cast itself as a universal hardware developer and core technology enabler for all mobile ecosystems. And this was the underlying theme that Qualcomm and Jacobs returned to again and again throughout the two-day conference.

The wireless giant says its Snapdragon chips are the designated drivers in 120 smartphone and tablets, with another 250 Snapdragon-powered devices in development. To bring this about, Qualcomm has formed long-term relationships with wireless operators, device makers, software developers, service companies, and others throughout the mobile industry.

Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs

The company’s technology is now used with Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, webOS, Brew MP, and Chrome—and Qualcomm’s influence at Apple appears to be growing. Qualcomm says it will release an augmented reality software development kit for iOS developers next month, and Apple is reportedly moving to include Qualcomm chips in its next-generation iPhone and iPad.

At its developer conference, Qualcomm’s prime directive was clearly to encourage software engineers to get creative in their development of games and entertaining content for mobile devices. Take, for example, the partnership that Qualcomm forged with Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency in February to launch Creative Mobile Labs (CML), which Jacobs described as more of a virtual project than an actual media lab. “We wanted to focus in with a partner who had really good connections into the creative community and who could translate our sort of engineer orientation, engineering speak to that community and get them excited… There are a lot of interesting opportunities to combine sports and 3D gaming and augmented reality,” Jacobs said.

He also admitted that Qualcomm’s experience with Media Flo, the company’s late, lamented foray into mobile TV, was a failure at least partly because “we weren’t able somehow to engage the creative community the way we wanted to” and FloTV didn’t offer consumers something that was creative and new. It was just cable TV for your phone.

Paul Jacobs

“I have come to realize in my life and in my career that we’re not necessarily the guys who actually figure out exactly how it’s going to get translated to the consumer,” Jacobs said. “We spend a lot of time thinking about what might be cool, but the actual final way that it’s delivered is not really our core competency. We’ll build the enabling technology and work with partners that actually do the final delivery.”

For all its connections, though, Qualcomm still maintains a low profile—especially among consumers.

While the company works with software developers and other partners to develop mobile games for the Snapdragon chipset and Adreno platform, Jacobs told reporters, “We’re not going to go out and build the end application generally. We don’t build the devices. We did that a long time ago and we really proved to ourselves that that is not our core competency. Really what we want to do is build the enabling technology. So we imagine the things that consumers want to do, and we build the enabling technologies.”

As for an “Intel inside” type branding campaign, Jacobs said Qualcomm would “try to amplify some of the buzz that gets created around” the knowledge that savvy consumers aquire about the Snapdragon chips in their phone. But you’re not going to see Qualcomm do a “Qualcomm inside” campaign. “It’s always been my philosophy that if I have a dollar to spend, I spend it on engineering as opposed to advertising because I know what I get out of that for the most part,” Jacobs said. “It’s just been sort of the way the company has been.”

So with Microsoft developing Windows 8 for mobile, and the increasing prevalence of Qualcomm’s low-power ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) processors, will we ever see Qualcomm chips moving into laptops, desktops, and more conventional computing systems?

“We see that as a huge opportunity for us going forward, particularly with Microsoft putting big Windows onto the ARM platform,” Jacobs said. “What consumers are going to see out of this are very, very aggressive form factors.” Devices will become much thinner and lighter, with better battery life, he predicted, and they will be always on and always connected. ” There are companies that have talked about ARM-based server chips and all that kind of stuff. Once it gets started, I think the sky’s the limit.”

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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