Qualcomm's View of the Future: Smart Electric Cars, Smartphones and Connected Tablets

Rob Enderle

Qualcomm, the market leader in cell phone technology, had its financial analyst meeting this week, filled with its vision of the future. While there was a consumer component anchored by its Skifta offering, which puts your music every place you are, much of the presentation suggests both opportunities and risks for those who use these future devices in corporations. Let's explore this.


Cellular Everywhere


It shouldn't be surprising that a company specializing is cellular technology would advocate it being placed everywhere, but the advancements Qualcomm has made in size and price for cellular modules are impressive. If you can make a full cell phone the size of a watch, why not use the technology for independent sensors that could be used in a variety of ways?


One of the most interesting uses is for sensors in electric cars and their chargers. This addresses the power companies' need to bill uniquely for electric car power, to assure that this power is only provided during off-peak times and that everyone with an electric car in a neighborhood doesn't charge at once, nuking the local transformer. (There are still a lot of problems to solve with electric cars). While this could be festive during the Fourth of July, customers and Homeland Security wouldn't be amused for long should a large number of transformers light up the night sky. For the car manufacturers, sensors would allow them to better direct these cars to power sources when needed -- electric infrastructure for cars is far from built out -- and to provide OnStar-on-steroid types of services.


For fleet vehicles like those from electric car maker Zap, they can help companies better manage the fleet and assure that these vehicles are not stranded with dead batteries.


Of course, this goes beyond cars and into monitoring equipment like the bracelets used to monitor prisoners, and tracking devices for pets and children. I know a few sales managers who would like to use them to track sales reps and at least one corporation that wishes it had one to track the CEO.


This does bring up a risk, however, because devices like this are relatively hard to detect because they are cell phones, and we are awash with similar devices. Making cell phone-based monitoring (bugs) affordable would help law enforcement, but hurt our ability to protect sensitive information.


Clearly medical sensors and monitors are coming, and the concept of a OnStar-like service attached to your body becomes more likely.


Super Smartphones


The next generation of smartphones starts to really push the envelope: internal sensors that can not only tell the location of the device but its angle and pointing direction make augmented reality and in-building navigation a much more compelling story. I still have nightmares about not being able to find university classes and/or my office at IBM. This capability would have been a godsend in my younger life.


Cameras in phones not only increasingly point both ways, but gain capabilities that allow them to stabilize pictures, clean them up (like remove red eye), and more accurately geo-tag the result. Future phones also automatically will take those pictures and send them to the Web where they can be more easily managed and distributed. This, too, creates risk, as there are areas in companies and governments that ban cameras and perhaps have become a little lax with camera phones. This should be a reminder to revisit and update those policies. Even if you were to confiscate the phone after the picture was taken, it likely would be too late.


Displays Viewable Outdoors


It really pisses me off that the only device I have that works well outdoors is my Kindle. I often can't read my cell phone screen in the car (convertible) and my laptop is a joke outdoors. Here we are in the summer, and I'm spending all my time in a stuffy office. This just seems nuts. Qualcomm is close to releasing its Mirasol display technology, which first will address tablet devices like the iPad and later will grow up to notebooks and down to cell phones.


This suggests the next-generation cell phones and tablets will be viewable outdoors. With iPads already moving into businesses and schools at an impressive rate -- many of the analysts at the Qualcomm event were using iPads rather than notebooks -- this could lead a revolution akin to the one that brought in PCs to replace terminals.


Ironically, back then, IBM didn't see the change coming and tried to turn PCs into terminals. This time, Big Blue is positioning around this move, and it wouldn't surprise me to see that company partner with the likes of Apple and Qualcomm to make this happen sooner.


The real wave is still 12 to 24 months from becoming unstoppable, but it does suggest some flexibility for future PC purchases. You might be considering alternatives in a year or so.


Wrapping Up: Living in a Wireless World


It isn't surprising that Qualcomm has defined a world that benefits its technology, but it is hard to argue with a wireless future, given that it surrounds us daily. The company provides both a promise and a warning: the promise of an ever-more-connected, ever-more-public world and the warning that such a world will be a bitch to secure. It might be wise to get started on the secure part early, because the promise part is already driving a wave of devices we don't yet fully understand. And this is simply the start.

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