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How Qualcomm crushed the mobile roadmap

How Qualcomm crushed the mobile roadmap
by Don Dingee on 04-09-2014 at 1:00 pm

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 announcement this week may seem like just another mondo-core SoC on a way-cool TSMC 20nm advanced process. Looking past the technology shows an understated genius in creating a roadmap – and why yours and most everyone else’s probably sucks.

 The biggest value a marketing team can add to an organization is a strategic product roadmap. Although it may seem targeted at OEM customers designing your product into theirs, a well-designed roadmap addresses the needs of everyone in the supply chain, from IP and process partners all the way to end customers.

Point products, championed by a technology team, can create short term wins – especially if they break away from an existing category. However, without the support and execution of a strategic product roadmap, customers look up, down, and forward, and all they see is your competition because you don’t have products occupying those spots.

A solid strategic roadmap creates affinity tiers, each with timely progression. Nomenclature varies, but a good roadmap usually has at least three tiers: performance or premium, mid-range or mainstream, and value or entry-level. Qualcomm actually has four tiers of mobile SoC, roughly speaking the Snapdragon 800, 600, 400, and 200 series respectively.

I hunted around for a single official image of the Qualcomm mobile roadmap, and came up mostly empty. There is – or more accurately was, the link for “Is This Qualcomm Roadmap Legitimate?” now shows as 404 – an article on Fool.com that had this rough diagram showing Qualcomm’s four tiers. Note the Chinese in the lower right corner; it is very likely either an internal Qualcomm engineering document or an unsanctioned marketing slide sans branding leaked in mid 2013. Roadmaps can and do change, and I think this was a valid snapshot.


One benefit of a solid roadmap is its ability to withstand attempts at disruption, and the Qualcomm roadmap shows how they got pulled in two directions: very low, and very high. The Snapdragon 200 is a response to the flood of single core ARM Cortex-A5 parts from China, while the Snapdragon 810 is part of the 64-bit response to Apple and Samsung, powered by ARM Cortex-A57 and A53 cores.

The assertion that Qualcomm “didn’t see 64-bit coming” is utter nonsense, but I do believe the timing of the Apple A7 announcement last fall upset the dragon’s timing just a bit. I think they thought they had more time to take the learning from Krait and design a new ARMv8-A 64-bit core. What has emerged from the bump is a pretty solid A-B strategy: take ARM’s IP for a first step, followed by internally developed cores, and repeat.

First comes love for IP and commodity needs, where design wins are vital. The Snapdragon 810 does have ARM big.LITTLE written all over it, with four A57s and four A53s, but let’s not get too core centric – there are other features that show how brilliant a move this is. With the newly acquired Arteris FlexNoC tech, cores and peripheral IP are now highly abstracted, and parts can be designed and released faster – a big win for ARM and other IP vendors, including the software providers. The 810 is also a huge step for moving LPDDR4 memory into the mainstream, which helps everyone industry wide as the memory sweet spot transitions.


The second dimension is OEM love: everything you need to make an advanced mobile device should be on the chip. There are precious few details on what an Adreno 430 actually means architecturally beyond “100% faster GPGPU compute performance”, but the GPU is only part of the story. The 810 targets 4K Ultra HD with HEVC in hardware. The Wi-Fi block picks up dual stream 802.11ac. Other features include a dual camera interface for up to 55 megapixels, a DSP-powered sensor fusion engine, and support for the obligatory Bluetooth 4.1, USB 3.0, location IP, and NFC.

Oh yeah, and there’s an integrated LTE modem too, and that is the third point: carrier love. In order to steal more of our money, carriers have to solve two big problems: spectrum, and keeping an expensive LTE infrastructure buildout constantly utilized. The 810 brings what is basically the Gobi 9×35 into the picture, with new support for 3 carrier aggregation LTE Advanced. To reach LTE cat 6 download rates, up to three 20 MHz LTE carriers (or lower rates) can be combined into a single data pipe at the device. This is why Qualcomm wins, hands down, at the high end.

 image courtesy GSMarena.com

All that adds up to what Qualcomm calls “the ultimate connected computing experience” for consumers, who won’t have the foggiest idea what is going on inside to make all this work. For our sake, we’d better hope it isn’t ultimate, or even penultimate, and that there is more room to grow and continue to call for newer parts. What will happen, naturally, is these bleeding edge features will push down into the lower tiers of the roadmap, and the upper right corner will see new ideas incorporated.

The preview of the Snapdragon 810 sets the bar for 2015 (we don’t see chips for probably another 6 months), and the implications for the industry are far-reaching. It’s a case study in strategic product roadmapping, taking into account technology trends, competition, supply chain partners, and user needs all in one fire-breathing assault on mobile.

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