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Mobile chips move beyond the phone

At its EMEA Summit 2012 in Berlin last week, Qualcomm lifted the lid on the role its Snapdragon mobile processors play beyond merely powering tablets and smartphones. SEAN BACHER reports.

Starting off in 1997 as a company making modems, Qualcomm has evolved into the biggest mobile chipset manufacturer in the world. Its Snapdragon processor is now at the heart of devices from over 50 manufacturers worldwide. What happens next, however, will be even bigger.

‚”This number will continue to grow as more apps are developed and seemingly boring devices like washing machines start becoming smart,‚” says Steve Mallenkopf, President and Chief Operating Officer of Qualcomm.

‚”The phone that was originally used as a device to simply make and receive calls has changed into a device that is now the centre of our lives. There are more mobile phones than toothbrushes on the planet.

‚”The smartphone is now being used in entertainment, for the delivery of healthcare and for the consumption of information. And I believe we will see customised and specialised apps being designed for different market segments as mobile connectivity technologies such as LTE begin to mature.‚”

Qualcomm partners at the conference showed how a tablet or smartphone can be used to control an entire house’s security system, or as a games device. Using wireless controllers and wirelessly connecting to an external monitor and sound system, they can be used for full-featured in-home entertainment.

Bring on AllJoyn

The motivation behind Qualcomm’s AllJoyn technology, a major theme at the conference, was spelled out in detail.

Mallenkopf explains: ‚”We are seeing everyday devices like washing machines becoming smarter. Although it is not yet available, a consumer will soon be able to download an app for a washing machine and be able to control that device from a tablet or smartphone.‚”

But that is only the beginning.

‚”AllJoyn will be built directly into our Snapdragon processors and will allow a user to connect and control any other device running a similar processor, seamlessly.

‚”The ability of disparate devices to connect to each other also brings many other benefits, the main one being able to share and stream data no matter what make or type of device.‚”

Suddenly, the long-promised concept of place-shifting becomes a reality.

‚”With our AllJoyn technology, users can download and begin watching a movie on a tablet. When they move into the lounge, that movie will automatically be moved over to the home entertainment device. And when the user decides it is time for bed, the movie can continue playing on the TV in the bedroom.‚”

This, he, believes will be done without the need for additional third party apps, as the technology will already be built into the device, with just the operating system controlling how and when data is shared.

The fully-connected car

Many manufacturers outside the smartphone and tablet market have taken note of Qualcomm’s expertise in the mobile chipset market and started implementing its processors in their devices. One such vertical segment is the automotive industry, and Audi in particular has made innovative strides with the processor.

Mathais Halliger, Audi’s Chief Architect of Multimedia Interfaces, was on hand to elaborate:

‚”A few years ago we came up with the Audi Connect infotainment system. Although many of our current cars are still based on the SD design or the design where most of the data is read off an SD card – we have quickly realised that with Qualcomm, we can achieve so more.

‚”It all started with navigation, where we had to build a screen large enough to display a map of the car’s surrounding area with street names and points of interest,‚” he says.

‚”At that stage we were updating the car’s maps via CD every time the car came in for a service. But, as voice commands, turn-by-turn navigation and richer, more detailed maps came into the picture, 10MB quickly became 100MB which became 1 000MB of data that needed to be uploaded to each car turning data management into a logistical nightmare.

‚”We realised we needed an alternative, and so we turned to the Cloud. This, however, meant we needed a processor that was not only powerful enough to power the navigation system, but one that could also communicate with the outside world. We first used a Qualcomm UMTS CPU in selected Audi A8 models in 2010, which allowed drivers to access Google Earth. This was just the beginning.‚”

Since then, he says, Audi has been incorporating Qualcomm processors into most new models.

‚”As the cars get smarter, with more sensors, driving aids and infotainment options, we will need a more powerful processor to handle this data. The Snapdragon S4 is the perfect candidate. Its processing speed, great graphics capabilities and communication functions will allow us to implement new services like over-the-air fault diagnosis. Passengers will also be able to browse the Internet from their backseats, stream video and music, make VoIP calls or access Twitter doing everything from the car that they would do on a computer, tablet or smartphone.

‚”The car will essentially start accessing and consuming data much like a smartphone does today.‚”

Smart mobile devices of the future? Look no further than your car.

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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