Can Qualcomm Compete As Smartphones Become Computers?

Our mobile devices are getting smarter, faster and are increasingly mimicking the functionality of a full-fledged PC. New capabilities such as multicore processors in phones and the ability to send HDMI video out mean that the brains inside our phones need more performance while they sip power. To that end, several chipmakers are coming to market with chipsets that combine multiple processors, high-end graphics cores and other design features to make truly killer end devices. As the top wireless chipmaker, Qualcomm has long been the “Intel inside” for mobile phones, but can it compete against a host of new processors with better graphics and more performance?

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor is the brains behind the Nexus One phone and will also star as the processor inside some small yet powerful computers called smartbooks, but rivals such as Texas Instruments, Nvidia and Marvell are gunning for those same design wins. And from a feature perspective, it looks like Qualcomm’s competitors may bring more to the party. Its current 1 GHz Snapdragon (a 1.5 GHz version with 1080p will be in later handsets) delivers 720p video, and has a 3-D graphics engine that’s less impressive than those from Marvell or Nvidia.

Yes, Qualcomm has won big so far. Nvidia launched an application processor at the 2008 Mobile World Congress, which was one sexy hunk of silicon. Later, it became the foundation of the Tegra chipset for mobile devices. After seeing what that could do, I predicted it would revolutionize computing and graphics consumption on the phone. So far, it’s in the Zune, but hasn’t taken off like I expected.

Last year Texas Instruments talked up its OMAP 4 chipset, which seemed to exceed Tegra in terms of graphics performance (1080p, supports up to a 20-megapixel camera, etc), and actually had me giddy with excitement. This year at MWC it launched with TI talking up the chip’s ability to enable gesture recognition on handsets. Also today Marvell, which has really made a big push into application processors for mobile devices in the last year or so, launched its own 1 GHz chip capable of delivering 1080p HD video and hosting real-time, graphic-intensive applications.

Not to be outdone, ST Ericsson, another top wireless chipmaker, announced at the MWC show a dual-core smartphone chip that can deliver 1.2 Ghz on each core. That’s about what my laptop offered five years ago, and seems like far more performance than any phone needs, until you take into consideration that the phone form factor is just one of many mobile connected form factors and that ST Ericsson has also created a chip for mobile devices that allows for HDMI out of the phone.

We predicted such a port in our phone of the not-too-distant-future, but ST Ericsson has the silicon to make it happen. That means with an HDMI cable your phone becomes a DVD player for any content downloaded from the web. One hopes that online stores can get their act together when it comes to selling HD versions of video on mobile devices.

But the question still remains, in a world offering silicon that enables HDMI content to be stored and processed on a handset, or gesture recognition thanks to a high-end camera and a powerful processors, can Qualcomm compete? For the last two years I’ve waited for Qualcomm to be dethroned, but I’m still waiting. Maybe 2010 is the year.

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