Sun is famous for its "the network is the computer" slogan. Today the company bends the meaning a bit to suit its current business, but it was a profound thought when originally coined to spotlight the network as a whole as being more important than the individual computers on the network. Fast forward and companies like Qualcomm today might make a similar claim. It wouldn't surprise me to hear Qualcomm state something akin to "the mobile radio is the computer." Of course computer is probably the wrong word there because the object of the sentence is really the all-everything wireless appliance that plays music, displays electronic books, plays interactive games and runs productivity applications. And the mobile radio is too simplistic in scope because realistically today you need a cellular radio, complemented with a Wi-Fi radio, complimented with a one-way multicast receiver for networks like MediaFlo and perhaps even complemented with an Ethernet port.
What prompted this prose? An article in the San Diego Union Tribune examined what might be Qualcomm's collision course with Intel.
Before I continue, I should apologize for basing this post on a week old newspaper story. Alas I was traveling from the East coast weekend before last and was late in catching up on my reading. Frankly I'm not sure how I stumbled across the linked article late last week. Here in San Diego where I live, we get more than our fair share of Qualcomm coverage because Qualcomm is one of the larger companies in town, popular with many investors, and active in the community. Also I'll offer one other disclaimer. The article came out the day before former Qualcomm COO Sanjay Jha left for Motorola so the mentions of Jha in the link are a bit dated.
Still I found the article quite interesting. Qualcomm (specifically QCT or Qualcomm CDMA Technologies that sells chips) has passed TI in terms of mobile phone chip shipments. They are on a roll financially with the recent Nokia license deal. And Qualcomm has been promoting the concept of devices that are slightly larger than handsets or even smartphones to every one that will listen. Meanwhile Intel, with the recent Atom push is targeting a device that looks like a shrunk notebook PC that Intel calls a MID (Mobile Internet Device). Just how different are the two visions and do the plans of Qualcomm and Intel put them on a collision course?
To some extent the discussion of a mid-size computing device and potential winners comes down to identifying the most valuable component in the device. Intel will surely argue, from the system perspective, the importance of the PC legacy, Windows compatibility, and therefore an x86 processor core. I'm not sure any of that matters for basic productivity applications in the era of the Open Office Suite. Then again some part of the customer base would want to run existing Windows games or multimedia packages on a mid-size device.
I do buy the concept that constant wireless connectivity is a requisite in a mid-size device. I don't see these appliances as phones with some compute capability. In fact I'm not sure most users would regularly make calls with a mid-size appliance. But a persistent wireless link is needed for uses such as interactive gaming, music or video streaming, email, and text messaging. Indeed the appliance would likely need both a mobile radio and a Wi-Fi radio and perhaps even more connectivity options.
So Qualcomm wins if the modem is the appliance right? Qualcomm certainly has ARM cores than can run the needed productivity applications and even games and multimedia applications. Unfortunately it is way to early to declare a winner. In fact, I'm still not sure just how large a market any company will find for a mid-size device. I personally have looked with envy at products such as the ASUS Eee PC, but only has a replacement for my much heavier notebook PC.
Moreover the future of 4G wireless is still up in the air despite the concessions Qualcomm received from Nokia. Intel is still pushing hard on WiMax. And WiMax deployment remains in front of the LTE 4G technology favored by the cellular incumbents. Intel could end up owning the modem as well as the main processor.
As for Qualcomm, I believe the company should continue on its path of pushing cellular radios into every product -- handheld games, GPS devices, personal medical appliances, and more. But the company also needs to prove that it can build a chip that succeeds in a product without a cellular radio. The company has amassed a number of technologies that would allow it to compete as a broader based chip company, including Wi-Fi technology (via the Airgo acquisition), MEMS devices for displays, and mixed-signal expertise. I'm not sure if Qualcomm management plans a collision course with Intel, but they will need a broader base than mobile modems if Intel is their next target.