Interview: Qualcomm CEO says 3G iPhone will raise the bar for mobiles


paul-jacobs-qualcomm.jpgAshley Norris writes…

The last time I met Qualcomm’s CEO Paul Jacobs (pictured) in London three years ago he was enthusing about his nascent mobile TV technology MediaFLO. I remember being quite cynical at the time telling him that I thought the Nokia backed DVB-H mobile TV format was a shoe-in for the UK and indeed most of Europe and that he should concentrate on the US.

Well there’s still no sign of any commitment to launch DVB-H in the UK, however MediaFLO is a step closer given that Qualcomm has just spent £8 million on buying some L-band radio spectrum. The official line is that it is to be used testing MediaFLO, but given the close relationship with Sky – the two company’s trialled MediaFLO in Manchester last year – there’s plenty of gossip that a UK launch of MediaFLO isn’t too far away.

Hence when I met Jacobs again, this time at the Brew conference in San Diego (Brew is Qualcomm’s mobile phone developer platform) he is unsurprisingly bullish about MediaFLO’s prospects, but does acknowledge that it has a long way to go.

‘I’d say we don’t even have version one of Mobile TV. We are working with version 0.5, but with MediaFLO we have a very good technology.’ Jacobs also believes there is ‘a pendulum swing in process in the way people consume video back towards live TV. We live in the real world in real time and that’s why I think live TV like sports events, news and weather will always appeal to consumers.’

It is likely that in the future MediaFLO will boast more interactive features as well as compatibility with web based video that will enable users to sideload content on their mobile devices.

Another possibility might be for a liaison between MediaFLO and a certain British set top digital recorder? Wouldn’t it be great if everything you recorded on your Sky+ box it was automatically stored on your Mobile too, I suggested?

‘There are business obstacles which we have to overcome before we could work with Sky in this way mainly around rights issues,’ added Jacobs. ‘However the idea of the phone being able to connect to the set top box via a network is a very intriguing prospect. Wouldn’t it be great if when you arrived home and all that you wanted to sync up automatically synced up?’

MediaFLO aside, the last few days have been very busy for Jacobs as his company has made a flurry of announcements ranging from a deal with Adobe to develop flash content for mobiles, through to the unveiling of a new platform called Plaza which will enable networks to bring web style widgets to phones. There’s also discussion of the Mobile wallet M-commerce systems sparked by Qualcomm’s recent acquisition of mobile banking specialists Firethorn Holdings, as well as buzz around push to share which will enables users to send files and data to multiple users at the touch of a button.

In fact in some ways it is hard to keep track of all the innovation from the company. I wondered if the company was moving too quickly – if there is too much innovation. Has Qualcomm lost sight of its core product of assembling chipset for mobile phones?

Jacobs smiles and says that he hopes not. ‘It is a little ironic really as we were once seen as a company with one core product – mobile phone chips. It might seem like we are innovating a lot but there is a common thread to those innovations – they are not disconnected. They are all connected to taking the mobile device and moving it from just voice to a data centric device.’

Another one of Qualcomm’s innovations is to deploy mobile technology in consumer electronic devices. The big example of this is the Kindle book reader which was launched by Amazon in the US last year. The device harnesses mobile networks to deliver book content to the Kindle no matter where the reader is. In theory this concept could be extended to music players that can grab tracks, cameras that can instantly upload images or even personal video players that download movies.

Another smart example is Qualcomm’s work with laptop makers to embed 3G/HSDPA chips into PC notebooks. The theory being that no matter where you are in the world you can access the web on the PC via a mobile network. I did wonder if this was merely a short term ploy as I am convinced that the mobile phone will effectively eat the camera, music player and possibly book reader if they can develop fold out screens. Jacobs is less convinced.

‘That’s not a theory I subscribe to. There are people in the world who want one device and there will be people who want more than one. The latter will still buy cameras with good optical zooms or standalone music players or handheld games devices which have much larger screens than mobiles. So I think there is a good opportunity to add wireless to other devices. One of my friends has a company called Pure Digital which is selling a camera called the Flip. How great would it be for that camera to be able to wirelessly upload video to YouTube seconds after you have shot it?’

The product area that Jacobs acknowledges could be toast is the portable music player which works very well integrated into a mobile. Which bring us neatly on to the iPhone. I asked Jacobs if he welcomed the iPhone or did he consider the upcoming 3G version to be a threat to his business?

‘In many ways the iPhone has raised the bar for mobile phones and that has been a good thing,’ he opines. ‘It has got rid of some of the complacency that some has dogged some companies and made them realise they have to change. There has always been good work developing interesting user interfaces and software not least by the Brew developers, but they have sometimes faced companies that have been slow to accept innovation. The iPhone has changed all that and now everyone wants to innovate quickly.’

With my allotted half hour almost over I quizzed Jacobs about whether he thought mobile broadband (in its HSPA + guise) would ever replace wired broadband services. He basically thinks it could well do but in a hybrid form, and that it is many years away yet.

Finally I asked him if he ever had a ‘eureka moment’ about mobile data, was there ever a time when it dawned on him that information delivered over cellular networks was the future? He volunteered a couple of examples before deciding on this one. ‘I remember having the first Palm smartphone and being on holiday in Hawaii. I had a data package too which had just started being offered by Sprint. I wanted to eat sushi that night so I keyed sushi and the name of the place I was staying in into the device. And there it was a list of restaurants selling sushi. For me that was a turning point as I knew that the old type of PDA could never compete with the new connected PDA. Being able to access information in that way gave the connected PDA such a huge advantage.’

Of course the next gen mobile phones will not only list restaurants. But they will also guide you there using GPS, deliver a host of user generated reviews and maybe one day offer a sample of their food via the phone. Now there’s an innovation for the Brew team to work on.


Related posts: Qualcomm’s ten ways the mobile will evolve | Microsoft wants more music on Windows Mobile

Katherine Hannaford
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