Q & A: Qualcomm COO Len Lauer

Wed, 09/16/2009 - 11:05am
Maisie Ramsay


Qualcomm COO Len Lauer has been a driving force behind the company’s move into wirelessly-embedded technologies, including its successful partnership with Amazon for the Kindle eReader and its recently announced M2M joint venture with Verizon Wireless.

Wireless Week Associate Editor Maisie Ramsay recently spoke with Lauer about the company’s diversification efforts, chipsets and patent strategy going into 4G. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Wireless Week: I've heard Qualcomm talk about the shift of wireless beyond the mobile phone into other types of devices and new market segments. How does Qualcomm see its embedded technology taking shape as the industry moves forward?

Len Lauer: Qualcomm is integrating a lot of computing functionality into the phone chip so that it can be integrated into many other kinds of devices. Examples range from wirelessly-enabled cameras that allow you to send a picture to a loved one, to sensing applications for pets and young children.

Qualcomm has also been getting into smart grids, ebook readers and portable computing like smartbooks. With smartbooks, we take the best of the smartphone and laptop experience and create a new category that is essentially a smartphone on steroids. We’ve taken the laptop and made it always on.

Because it’s always on, e-mail and social networks are being pushed to you just like on your smartphone, and we have also incorporated LBS capability. Smartbooks have a very sleek, lightweight form factor because we don’t need a fan to cool off the processor.

We believe the category will be successful because smartbooks provide a much different user experience than netbooks. We have designs coming out for the holiday season, but the majority will come out in the first half of 2010.

WW: There's been a lot of attention on mobile computing, especially with products like netbooks. How do products based on Qualcomm's Gobi solution and Snapdragon platform fit in with that? 

Lauer: Essentially with Gobi, we allow all forms of consumer electronics like netbooks to connect beyond Wi-Fi to 3G and 4G networks.

Gobi essentially provides a way to connect to all different modules in the area. It simplifies the experience for the consumer by giving them the freedom to connect to different networks depending on where they live. It’s also simpler for the OEM to manufacture because instead of having to carry different air cards for different operators around the world, they just carry the Gobi module capability.

Snapdragon gets much more into integrating all the capabilities of the applications processor, with the modem functionality similar to Gobi. Snapdragon has multimedia capability with GPS, power management, all integrated on to one chip, one module.

WW: Nokia's recently announced Booklet 3G is going after the high-end netbook segment. With the pricing for your upcoming smartbook set at about $200, where in the market do you see the device positioned?

Lauer: I wouldn’t peg our smartbooks just at $200, that depends on our OEM partners. You’re going to see a range from $200 up to $500 because the OEM really decides where to price it. Also, if you buy it through a mobile network operator, they may decide to subsidize it if you sign a two-year contract for 3G connectivity or 4G connectivity.

We were really pleased to see the Nokia announcement because we think it s a further validation of 3G connectivity embedded in personal computers, or in their case, netbooks. We do think that OEMs that choose to use our Snapdragon platform will be advantaged by having much lower power use, always-on capabilities and being able to have things pushed to the device. This is Nokia’s first version; they’re using the Intel Atom capability and we think it’s an affirmation that 3G connectivity is important.

WW: Some analysts view Qualcomm as a big potential winner should Android devices become successful. Can you tell us about your work with Google and how you've been able to differentiate yourself from other chipset providers that are also working on Android phones?

Lauer: As you know, we’re a member of the Open Handset Alliance. Our technology was at the heart of the first Android-powered handset, the HTC G1 that’s marketed through T-Mobile in the U.S. We’re very positive about our progress with Google working on additional mobile devices.

I think Google sees Qualcomm as the best in integration, the best at getting things deployed quickly with all the OEMs around the world and all the mobile network operators around the world. They see us as a very fast path to market; a company that is able to integrate capabilities in the silicon with their Android operating system.

We’re also working with Google on the new Chrome OS – it’s a Web-centric platform for smartbooks and netbooks. I think Google said it would be available in the second half of 2010.

WW: The wireless industry has seen a lot of patent fights over 3G technologies, and there have been countless court battles over intellectual property rights. Some people don't expect 4G to be much better - what are your expectations? Has the industry learned a lesson from 3G?

Lauer: There have been lessons learned from 3G. Qualcomm is a much more valued partner in the overall ecosystem. Our involvement in GSMA is much, much better than it was three or four years ago. We are also an active, involved partner in 3GPP and that was not the case five years ago. The industry now believes it’s better to bring in all parties to contribute for the development of the next standard for 4G.

If you take a look at litigation, the biggest suit was probably Nokia. That ended up being good for the industry because when Nokia and Qualcomm settled, it brought about a kind of global peace. The industry doesn’t need to worry about us fighting because it’s a 15-year agreement and covers all aspects of 4G and OFDMA, including single mode. Similarly, our recent settlement with Broadcom is long-term.

The last pieces of litigation we have now are in regulatory environments, whether it’s the Koreans or Japanese or Europeans. That’s going to happen from time to time because politics are involved. As far as within the industry itself, we feel better going into 4G compared to the fights we had with 3G.

WW: Many analysts I've spoken with over the past several months suspect that Qualcomm's patent position isn't as strong in 4G/LTE as it is with CDMA. Can you respond to this?

Lauer: We’re actually optimistic going into 4G for a couple different reasons. Our patent capability going into 4G is very valuable. It comes both from the organic development of OFDMA and our 2005 acquisition of Flarion, which was a leader in OFDMA.

For a good number of years, the large majority of devices will be multi-mode. They’ll have 3G capability and 4G capability. Operators are not going to build 4G networks to replace 3G networks, they’ll be both in place. For many years, we’ll have both 3G and 4G capabilities built into the modem. As a result, they’ll be using all our know-how and discovery for both 3G and 4G.

If you take a look at our licensing program, we don’t charge for one separate technology on its own, we don’t charge extra for each new patent we bring out. We actually charge for our entire contribution of know-how to all of our patents.

So if you were to buy into someone arguing Qualcomm doesn’t have a really strong position in 4G, it would only apply to a small number of stand-alone 4G devices.

We have a very strong set of discoveries, know-how and patents in 4G. Sometimes people simplify the argument by looking at a number of patents. The importance isn’t the number of patents, it’s the value of the patents you hold. You have to be careful not to get into a patent counting game; that’s what many times people do. We feel very, very positive about the value of the patents we have in 4G, as we did in 3G.

WW: Qualcomm has put a lot of effort into Brew. How do you see Brew fitting into a 4G world?

Lauer: Brew is designed to maximize on wireless data across multiple handsets, especially feature-based phones. The same opportunity we had for 3G will get taken into the 4G world. We ship the Brew client with our chips, and we have the new Plaza platform that opens up previous implementations of Brew. Brew in the past has been very CDMA 20000-based, with Plaza we’ve opened it to WCMDA and the 4G environment. Now, application developers that make apps for Android, Java and RIM can also run those apps on Plaza.

WW: You announced the joint venture with Verizon Wireless during the Global Smart Services Summit. On the heels of that announcement, how do you see Qualcomm fitting into the M2M industry?

Lauer: We are an enabler for the industry, but we also have customers who come to us looking for end-to-end services. The joint venture allows us to take our capabilities and broaden them with Verizon’s sales distribution force. They bring that, the power of their brand, and we bring managed services and chip capabilities.

We have chips that will be used by many different carriers for machine-to-machine technology. If a customer comes forward looking for an end-to-end solution, now there is one provider they can get it from through the joint venture. As more devices become embedded with wireless technology, industries that don’t know a whole lot about mobility will need that end-to-end solution.



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