Q & A: Qualcomm on Pushing the App Envelope
Qualcomm is best-known for chip design – its Snapdragon processors are practically synonymous with high-end smartphones – but the company is about more than just silicon. Qualcomm has a big interest in pushing wireless technology forward, with investments ranging from the Indian broadband market to peer-to-peer sharing.
That diversity will be on display at its annual Uplinq conference in San Diego this week, where about 2,000 application developers, device manufacturers, content providers and executives from wireless operators will gather to share ideas about mobile technology. Unlike Google’s I/O conference up the street in San Francisco, Uplinq will be focused on a variety of mobile operating systems, including Android, iOS and Windows Phone.
Wireless Week spoke with Liat Ben-Zur, senior director of software strategy and business development for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, about the conference, open source versus closed source, the company’s new Snapdragon software development kit for Android and the intersection of hardware and software. This is an edited transcript of that discussion.
Wireless Week: Qualcomm has done a lot of outreach to the developer community in the past couple years, which will be reflected at this year’s Uplinq conference. It seems to me this marks a move toward open source, versus keeping a walled garden. Is that a fair characterization? If so, why the move towards more open source?
Liat Ben-Zur: I think there’s definitely a move toward a lot of open source activity. As I’m sure you’re well-aware, we formed the Qualcomm Innovation Center a few years ago, a wholly owned subsidiary of Qualcomm which is completely dedicated and focused on working on open sources.
Qualcomm has been doing a lot in that area. All of our AllJoyn efforts have been open source, as is a lot of the work we do on Android, Chromium, Linux and WebKit. Those are all top open-source priorities for Qualcomm and we plan to continue doing a lot in that realm. Where open source can really add a lot of value and the community can help contribute to move technologies forward, we want to be a part of that and we want to be seen as leaders.
There are also a lot of technologies that we continue to drive that are not open source, such as augmented reality and various other technologies around audio and imaging. Qualcomm is moving the bar forward on technology all the time, from radios to multimedia to peer-to-peer to user experiences. When it’s appropriate to go open source, that’s what we do and we really try to engage that community. And when it’s appropriate to own the technology, that’s what we do.
WW: Given that you do have such a variety of both open source and non-open-source products, how do you decide which goes which way?
Ben-Zur: It’s probably not something that’s as simple of a heuristic as I could just summarize it one call, but there are a lot of factors that go into it. Is this something that really requires a lot of mass-market adoption to be successful? Could a large community benefit from and add technical value if they wanted to contribute? Or is it something that is really complex, so tighter integration and control end-to-end makes sense? So there’s so many different parts of that, both technical and business. It really depends.
WW: Qualcomm has done a lot of work with integrating its chips with Android, which seems like an obvious move given that a lot of Android phones use Snapdragon. How does your new Android-specific software development kit fit into that?
Ben-Zur: By means of introduction, my role is to head up our ecosystem team, a global team that works with app developers around the world doing really interesting stuff on mobile devices, tablets, televisions, etc. We work with developers across all platforms – Android, Windows, Windows 8, HTML 5. The unique position of Qualcomm is we are the chipset behind mobile devices that run a lot of different operating systems.
The goal of the ecosystem team is to help bring the sexiest, coolest, most advanced kinds of applications and user experiences to these devices. So our scope is definitely broad.
Specifically to your question about the Snapdragon SDK for Android that we’re going to be announcing: there are quite a lot of interesting things that Qualcomm is doing in our chipsets that really push the envelope of technology, of what your phones and tablets and televisions will be able to do in the future. Some of those things are not exposed today through that standards Android SDK. Our goal is to provide a collection of extensions to the Android SDK that allow developers to access some of those killer next-generation features and build the use cases that will blow your mind.
WW: Can you give an example of one of those use cases?
Ben-Zur: Some of the new features we’re going to be initially exposing through the Snapdragon SDK are advanced facial processing, advanced imaging like burst capture – you click once and you can get 20 frames really fast, so that you never miss that picture of your child shooting a goal - surround sound recording for better audio capture, hardware echo cancellation, some gesture capabilities, low-power always-on geofencing capabilities and some cool indoor location capabilities.
Your mind might start to wonder on how developers might use all of this. Just taking facial processing, you can imagine a camera application that uses our facial processing capabilities. It’s not just facial recognition: I can actually see if you’re blinking, if you’re smiling, to what degree you’re smiling, what way your eyes are looking. So you can take family portraits and you won’t have one person blinking or looking away. You can guarantee a perfect shot.
WW: As you mentioned, Qualcomm’s chips are being used in a variety of other platforms. Nokia’s Lumia lineup comes to mind. Are you doing similar work with those platforms, or are your efforts focused mainly on Android since it has such a dominant market share?
Ben-Zur: We really are looking at all of the different platforms, and we work closely with Microsoft. A lot of the work we do with Microsoft is to ensure the Microsoft API’s are taking advantage of the power that’s in the chipset, so that applications that run on their operating system are really running in a fine-tuned manner and are taking advantage of various hardware-accelerated codecs.
A lot of the SDK’s that we’ve been promoting that have really taken off such as Vuforia and AllJoyn run across many different operating systems. So you’re going to be seeing AllJoyn running on Windows before the end of the year. Vuforia runs across everything, even iOS. We’re really a cross-platform-oriented organization. That’s one of the things we believe is unique about Uplinq.
WW: The diversity of platforms represented there?
Ben-Zur: That’s right. It’s really not like many of the other software developer conferences, which tend to be all about one vertical. We really have that unique lens where we look at the whole thing end-to-end.
WW: Integration of apps and processors can not only help with innovation, but can help address problems with handset performance, something Qualcomm has done with Snapdragon. What sort of results are you seeing from your efforts on that front?
Ben-Zur: About a year and a half ago, when I started a lot of this effort with the developer community, we’d go out to work with developers to see how we could help them make their apps run better. The initial response from developers was, “Wait, why would I care about the hardware? I’m just writing an app, what do I care?” That sentiment has completely changed over the past couple years. Everyone is coming to the realization that tight software/hardware integration matters. It really makes a difference, especially for people that are building complex 3D graphics games, people that are trying to deliver video, people that care about power consumption – everyone.
They’re realizing that by building an application that more smartly uses hardware resources, they can have real performance improvements in their applications. Some of the video chat guys are actually saying that a 2 percent improvement in their app’s performance actually leads to people downloading and using the application longer – it makes that much of a difference. We’ve seen some amazing improvements in graphics with the Adreno 3D graphics optimization. The video guys have done a lot with dedicated hardware codecs. People that are delivering advanced, expensive content, like Hollywood studios, they really care about security. The only way they get security they’re comfortable with is though tight integration with the hardware. So you’re only going to get HD movies from the big studios if the right security integration is there – and the list goes on and on.
WW: Qualcomm takes active steps to push the industry forward, as evidenced by its work on augmented reality and the AllJoyn peer-to-peer sharing platform. What does it take for a technology like AllJoyn to make it out of the lab and into widespread consumer adoption?
Ben-Zur: AllJoyn has been really successful to date. Big-name commercial companies are using it, from NamCo Bandai to Digital Chocolate, and there are a lot of interesting companies that are playing with AllJoyn and releasing commercial apps based off of it. This concept of proximity-based peer-to-peer- and device-to-device communication will be, in my opinion, the topic of the next two years.
All of the announcements you’re seeing from Microsoft, Apple, Google and others that show things like televisions talking to each other, it’s all this concept of proximity-based communications. And for most developers who want to develop applications that can run across a lot of different platforms, AllJoyn allows them to create those experiences in less than a week. They love it.
WW: So how exactly does Alljoyn work? Is it NFC-based?
Ben-Zur: It’s not. The idea with AllJoyn is we’re not inventing a new technology at all. We asked ourselves the question: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are ubiquitous on 100 percent of the phones that are out there. There’s no lack of radio access technology. So why is it that there’s not a ton of applications out there in the market that allow us to discover one another when we’re in the same room, or allow us to connect to the TV when we’re next to it? Why is that?
It’s not because you can’t do it. It’s just that in order to create that experience, it’s a pain. You have to really, really understand radio protocol, discovery, pairing, dealing with active networks where people come in and out, security issues. That gets really hard, and most developers who are good at doing cool user experiences and fantastic aesthetics are not Wi-Fi experts or Bluetooth experts.
All AllJoyn is is a software framework that works with whatever existing technology that’s on your phone, whether it’s Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. It makes it really easy for developers to not have to worry about those complex peer-to-peer technologies.