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Lights, audio, and waiting for action from Qualcomm

Lights, audio, and waiting for action from Qualcomm
by Don Dingee on 01-06-2015 at 3:30 pm

The news Qualcomm has shipped over a billion Snapdragon chips in Android smartphones broke last September. After reiterating that and a sustained outlook for smartphones over the next five years, the Qualcomm CES 2015 presser seemed to leave most media outlets a bit disappointed. Naturally, that prompts us to ask what is going on in the bigger Qualcomm picture.

There at least five reasons for the perceived lack of “big news” out of Qualcomm:

1) If Qualcomm has big smartphone chip news, it will be at Mobile World Congress next month.
2) Smartphone growth is old news compared to the IoT.
3) Most consumers still haven’t connected the dots on what the IoT means for them.
4) Qualcomm is working on making that connection.
5) Yes, things are not going as well in China as Qualcomm had hoped right now.

What do you talk about when you don’t have a great story with juicy product details to announce, and there is that one thing you really don’t want to talk about? It hearkens back to 1988 and Jean Luis Gassée whipping out the Knowledge Navigator video for Apple fanbois. Share the vision.

image courtesy U-T San Diego and David Becker/Getty Images

In launching the “Why Wait” campaign backed by a cumulative $33B in research since its origin, Qualcomm has adopted the term “Internet of Everything.” Whatever the marketing approach, the point is well taken: the same SoC technology that powers an Android smartphone forms a good basis for an IoT gateway. Whether that gateway resides in a home, car, hospital, power plant, or smart city is unimportant, as long as there is seamless interoperability.

CES, of course, is the home of the seamless media device interoperability story for consumers. First, there was “plug and play,” for decades the foundation of the Wintel faith. USB arrived and serial ports disappeared. Then, there was DLNA, a neatly small idea that failed to anticipate or respond to streaming media or integration with the rest of the home. HDMI thankfully gained momentum and cleaned up the way cables connect multimedia devices. Wi-Fi got faster and connected more. Smartphones changed the world, or at least half of it by recent tallies.

This week, everyone has to have an IoT story. The Verge reported a quip from Derek Aberle, president of Qualcomm, during the Q&A in reference to their vision:

Qualcomm is doing things while everyone is mostly talking about doing things.

They are doing something – whether it turns out to be the thing for everything on the IoT remains to be seen, pun about to be intended. I’m also not sure who “everyone” is in that statement. Apple? Google? Intel? Samsung? The Chinese? The 2014 Denver Broncos? OK, he did say mostly. For instance, I’d point at PubNub and their announcement of support for Atmel MCUs as the kind of thing that could have significant IoT impact.

And, that is exactly the kind of thing Qualcomm would not acknowledge. Qualcomm has the AllSeen Alliance. They have definitely learned from the shortsightedness of Sony and the DLNA debacle, and are expanding the story for consumers and the OEMs serving that market. Two AllSeen-related announcements tug at consumer heartstrings:

  • Qualcomm Atheros and LIFX have teamed up to create a Wi-Fi-based smart lighting platform that speaks AllJoyn. Skipping hubs, translators, and more importantly some other wireless network standard (“what is ZigBee, Alex?”), the Lighting Connectivity Module and Wi-Fi enabled LED bulbs hook into the Lighting Service Framework inside the AllSeen family of specifications.
  • In an expansion of the AllPlay smart media platform ecosystem, Qualcomm announced a wave of new hardware and streaming content providers. The big hitter is streaming support in Tencent’s QQMusic, the largest online streaming music platform in China, which may be a clue of a coming turnaround in Qualcomm fortunes there.

The lesson I take from this comes from history. For about a year, I sat next to a team developing Motorola iRadio, watching them try to figure out cell phone streaming technology. Meanwhile, Sirius and XM (separately, pre-merger) worked on content relationships and a looser hardware ecosystem. We see who won that engagement, and the subsequent rise of Pandora and Spotify. Good hardware is necessary. Content ultimately rules.

Qualcomm is not the only IoT game, particularly when it comes to scaling down to smaller devices at the edge. Right now, they are all about Wi-Fi, and that cuts both ways. (The just-announced AllJoyn Gateway Agent may help there.) However, it would be significant if they can cinch up the gateway tier of the IoT with the right SoC hardware and a software ecosystem built around AllSeen. This points out a difference between the consumer IoT – where Qualcomm has a chance with their brand and smartphone domination – and the industrial IoT, which will look very different.

I think those disappointed in this week’s Qualcomm news might have missed the news. Winning the consumer IoT game on a scale never before seen is going to require a big vision, patience, and understanding consumer behavior. I would not expect a big splash and immediate results.

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