CES 2018: New Chips From Qualcomm Point to the Future of Computing

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Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm’s vice president of product management, sticks his head into a Cadillac SUV and points up at a gaping rectangular hole in the ceiling. A hole in this ceiling is hardly remarkable: the whole car looks like a bomb went off inside. Seats face the wrong direction, and wires dangle from places you didn’t even know there were wires. A few feet away, two more cars—a Ford and a Maserati—sit in roughly the same condition.

Qualcomm‘s automotive team bought these cars new, and stripped them for parts. Now, inside a huge converted soda factory in San Diego, they’re building the cars back up in Qualcomm’s image. The Maserati’s closest to ready: it has a vertical, Tesla-like screen between the two front seats, and several more screens across the dashboard. In the Cadillac, the team is installing movable screens in the backseat, too, and even putting displays in place of the side-view mirrors. “You should be able to run Netflix on this display or that display, when the driver is sitting there and the cark is in park,” Duggal says. “When you’re driving, no streaming services allowed, but Audible should be allowed, Yelp should be allowed, OpenTable should be allowed.” Six cameras are being installed around the car, to aid in all things autonomous driving.

Different parts of the car run on different software. All the infotainment bits use a heavily skinned version of Android. Mission-critical things like speedometers and fuel gauges use QNX, a BlackBerry-made software designed for supreme reliability. They’re all running on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors, the same ones probably inside your smartphone. And they’re all going to work thanks to a Qualcomm modem that will go inside the hole in the ceiling Duggal points at. It works on 3G, every breed of LTE you can think of, and the nascent 5G technology Qualcomm thinks is about to take over.

Qualcomm’s processors, usually just utilized in mobile devices, can power other connected products like this smart speaker.

Qualcomm

Qualcomm made its name, and fortune, in smartphones. But the company sees an even bigger opportunity going forward. Qualcomm sees itself as the brand that connects things. First its chips helped connect people to the internet, and to each other, on mobile devices. Now it’s hoping to play an even bigger role in an even bigger market: connecting all the devices about to come online, from cars to lightbulbs to AR glasses. Lots of companies hope for the same thing, of course, but Qualcomm has an advantage: it’s not trying to sell one device, or promote one platform. It makes the product behind the product, the engine that powers millions of different devices. That means whatever Qualcomm makes, the world uses. And Qualcomm’s making some crazy new stuff.

One, Two, Three Four Five

Sometime in the next two or three years, if all goes to plan, Qualcomm will play a leading role in building the world a new wireless network. LTE and 4G will be replaced by 5G, a new system that uses the super-high-frequency millimeter-wave spectrum to send way more data, way more quickly. “It’s faster than what’s in your home, faster than what’s at work,” says Sherif Hanna, Qualcomm’s director of product marketing. You’ll be able to download movies in a few seconds, or stream high-res VR content. Internet speeds will effectively stop being an issue.

Fast speeds are just part of the plan. With 5G, Qualcomm thinks it’s also building a network that’s more reliable. It has much lower latency, meaning you might not even notice whether something happens locally on your device or is streamed over the web. And it never, ever goes down. That makes multiplayer mobile gaming work perfectly, and means you don’t ever need to store anything locally at all. Everything can be online, and you’ll never feel the difference.

Hanna is quick to note that LTE, the last big networking change Qualcomm worked on, has plenty of room left to grow. There’s more capacity in the spectrum, more room for speed and reliability increases. But when Qualcomm’s engineers were working on LTE, they never imagined a world in which every device, everywhere, was connected to the internet all at once. They built LTE for phones, not for municipal water-pressure meters that need to last for decades. “The ability to comprehend tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of devices within one small geographic area,” Hanna says, was one of the great challenges of 5G. “Not only connecting people, but connecting the world … full-scale where you have not millions, but billions of these devices.”

Making Connections

Over the years, Qualcomm has learned repeatedly that if you make a network meaningfully better, users will find new and different things to do with that network. As it has helped develop the 5G protocols and systems, the team at Qualcomm has found itself asking the same question over and over: what will this bring? “We plan three years out,” says Keith Kressin, Qualcomm’s senior vice president of product management. “That’s our chip.” The company’s thinking about technology on much longer horizons. Right not they’re trying to figure out what happens when you give everyone always-on, super-fast internet connections. Ubiquitous GPS led to Uber; phone cameras brought Instagram. How does the world change when nobody has to worry about their data cap or bars of service?

Nobody at Qualcomm knows for sure, but they have a few ideas. They’ve been talking about the 5G future for a few years now, as they try to make the right design and infrastructure decisions to support the world that doesn’t yet exist. Here’s what they do know: that fast, omnipresent connectivity will help AI improve even faster and affect more devices. It will probably make more people watch more video, too. And it seems likely that our devices will become simpler over time, as they siphon more of their performance and smarts from the cloud.

Someday soon, your phone could just be a screen, a battery, and a processor for the simple things—and the things you’d rather not send over the internet, like your fingerprint or passcode. You might have similar screens on your mirror, in your car, and all over your house. When those screens need to do complicated things, whether it’s gaming-level graphics or helpful voice assistants, you can call on the cloud. “If you have applications where you’re doing very heavy things, like real-time VR or machine learning, now with 5G it may just be a millisecond away,” says Matt Grob, Qualcomm’s executive vice president of technology.

Once that happens, since most of the complicated work happens in the cloud (before instantly streaming back to your phone), your battery will probably last longer since your phone itself doesn’t have to work so hard. Qualcomm’s also working on processors for smart earbuds and headphones, which would benefit even more from offloading processing work through this kind of fast connection. The autonomous driving projects inside Duggal’s lab need it, too, to connect to all the people, cars, and objects around them. Going forward, almost anything could run on a phone-class processor and a smallish battery, and let the supercomputers in the cloud handle the real work. Online and offline, data and Wi-Fi, all the distinctions could become meaningless. All your gadgets would just be screens, with their superpowers a few milliseconds away.

New Sights to Behold

In this massively connected future Qualcomm imagines, a smartphone might not be your primary device. So the company’s betting big, investing in everything from smart assistants to the connected home to augmented reality. It wants to see (and sell chips for) robot vacuums that go around the dog poop rather than spreading it all over the floor, lights that turn off when nobody’s in the room, microwaves that know what’s inside and cook it perfectly.

Its biggest opportunity could come from AR, says Tim Leland, also a vice president of product management. “Maybe the glasses don’t replace the smartphone entirely by the end of the next decade, but they’re certainly selling in the hundreds of millions of units,” he says. Leland believes Qualcomm is perfectly set up to be as important to AR as it has been to smartphones. “It’s right in our wheelhouse anyway: low power, connectivity, multi-mode connectivity, Wi-Fi and wireless, multimedia, display processing,” he says. “It’s all the stuff we’re working on anyway.”

At this early stage, hardly any of the necessary tech exists to make AR great. Qualcomm’s trying to push on all sides. “We’re working with all the big guys, and believe me, we’re working with all of them,” Leland says. He’s pushing partners to make transparent displays, the better for overlaying digital objects on real-world ones. He’s working with carriers to enable the speeds (and data-plan prices) that will make streaming VR viable. He’s working with companies on product designs, engineers on battery optimization, on and on. “One of the things that’s interesting about working here is that you have a seat at the table for any other ingredient in the ecosystem,” Leland says. “There’s nobody we can’t get a meeting with.”

That sentiment isn’t as true as it used to be. Over the last few years, big players like Samsung and Huawei have stopped sourcing their CPUs entirely from Qualcomm and begun building their own. Apple, of course, has done so for years: it makes its own chips, its own software, its own hardware, and its own services, to great effect. Qualcomm spent the last decade working with a small handful of partners, whose devices sold in unprecedented numbers. Now, it might have to find ways to work with many more partners on many more devices, many of whom won’t be traditional tech companies. “We have to make chips from $100 all the way down to $1” in order to work within the internet of things, according to Seshu Madhavapeddy, yet another vice president of product management at Qualcomm.

If it can continue to find its way into these nascent industries, and make itself indispensable the way it has with smartphones, Qualcomm’s effect on the tech industry’s future might even expand. It could make 5G happen simply by putting the requisite pieces on whatever Snapdragon chip all the Android manufacturers want in 2020. It could push augmented reality and voice assistants into the mainstream by embedding the capability into millions of new devices. So if, in a few years, you find yourself streaming games to your VR headset while your car drives itself to the home that’s fully alive and waiting for you, you’ll be living the future Qualcomm’s been imagining for years. One where everything’s connected, and everything just works.

Take a Dip Into Chips