Titanic clash brewing between Qualcomm, Intel

Handset heavyweight Qualcomm is set to butt heads with Intel as it readies its high-performance Snapdragon chip.

Handset heavyweight Qualcomm is set to butt heads with Intel as it readies its high-performance Snapdragon chip.

Qualcomm's three-year effort to design its first gigahertz-class processor for smartphones will come to fruition this summer. And if products roll out in the numbers Qualcomm claims, Snapdragon should solidify the San Diego, Calif.-based company's position as the preeminent maker of cell phone chips, while allowing it to challenge Intel's dominance in Netbooks.

Qualcomm vice president Mark Frankel with the Toshiba TG01 (in hand) and Wistron Netbook
Qualcomm VP Mark Frankel with the Toshiba TG01 (in hand) and Wistron Netbook. Brooke Crothers

I sat down with Mark Frankel, vice president of product management for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, last week to discuss the prospects for Snapdragon and Intel's increasing presence in small devices.

"From a business perspective and design win perspective, things have only increased since Q4 of last year," Frankel said of Snapdragon.

Toshiba will be the first to bring out a Snapdragon-based smartphone. "Toshiba is this summer. That's the only Snapdragon 'hard' device that's been announced so far. You'll see many more over the course of the year," Frankel said.

The Toshiba TG01 Windows Mobile-based phone was unveiled in February . It uses a 1GHz Snapdragon (aka the Qualcomm QSD8250 chipset), is only 9.9mm thick (versus 12.3mm for the Apple iPhone), runs Windows Mobile 6.1, sports a 4.1-inch WVGA 800x480 touch screen (versus 3.5-inch for the iPhone), and comes with support for 3G HSPA, Wi-Fi, GPS, and assisted-GPS.

(See video below of Qualcomm-developed game running on the Toshiba TG01 and Snapdragon.)

Acer and Asus, among others, are also expected to bring out Snapdragon-based products.

It took a long time for Qualcomm to reach this point. In November 2006, Luis Pineda, Qualcomm's senior vice president of marketing and product management at the time, told ZDNet UK that "chipsets based on Snapdragon should become available towards the end of 2007, with products appearing the following year." That didn't happen, of course.

Nevertheless, Qualcomm--as the leading provider of core silicon in cell phones--has a long history of providing chips for high-profile phones. The T-Mobile G1 , which runs Google's Android operating system, is powered by Qualcomm's processor, for example.

One of Snapdragon's purported fortes is its performance. The chip runs at 1GHz, a milestone for the power-frugal ARM architecture, which typically yields processors that run at much lower speeds. (U.K.-based ARM licenses a basic chip design to companies including Samsung, Nvidia, Toshiba, and Panasonic, which take the design and modify it for their specific needs.)

Snapdragon boasts an ATI graphics engine, too. In February, Qualcomm acquired Advanced Micro Devices' ATI handheld chip technology , which includes intellectual property for "unified shader architecture" that has been used in Microsoft's Xbox.

Frankel said the ATI graphics engine will improve. "Going forward, you'll see more and more innovation done in-house," he said.

Qualcomm is also going multi-core, an established trend at Intel and AMD for PC and server chips but not for handheld devices because of the power requirements. And even Intel abandoned--though this may change later this year--multi-core in its Netbook Atom line-up because it would make Atom too power hungry.

"It is possible to have multi-core versions just as there are multi-core versions of Intel and AMD processors," Frankel said. "We do have a pretty robust CPU road map. (A dual-core) chip has been in development for some time. And it's well under way. It's sampling this year. You won't see it product this year. You'll see version one of Snapdragon," he said.

The Qualcomm QSD8672 dual-core Snapdragon is expected to reach speeds of 1.5GHz.

So, how is all of this technology going to best the 800-pound chip gorilla, Intel? "There are certainly some very glaring differentiations with Atom...No matter how much the other architecture pounds its drum for power saving, I don't think you're going to see that architecture in handheld devices for a period of time," Frankel said, referring to mainstream smartphones.

(Intel announced in March that it would co-manufacture Atom chips with chip manufacturing giant TSMC , and LG Electronics said in February that it would bring out a smartphone based on the "Moorestown" version of the Atom processor.)

In response to a question about Intel's current line-up of Atom chips for handheld mobile Internet devices, or MIDs, he said: "Atom is a product looking for a home. It was a product not designed with the user in mind but with the socket in mind." (The socket connects the chip to the circuit board.) "Why do you want a MID? I don't think anybody was really able to answer that question."

And Frankel repeated what some analysts have claimed: that Intel needs to control the market segmentation of the lower-profit Atom processor so it doesn't cannibalize its higher-end chips. "Intel wants to encapsulate this because of the ramifications to the other aspects of its business," he said.

What about Netbooks--the space that Intel owns right now? "When we first came out with Snapdragon, there was a lot interest in the Netbook space. The thinking was: I'll take my traditional Netbook Linux OS that I have in desktops and laptops. (But) I think over time, OEMs (device makers) have come to the conclusion: why limit my differentiation to just the hardware componentry?"

Frankel continued, "(Device makers) have been pushing some of the OS vendors to have smaller, faster, lighter more rich platforms. I think that's happening in several different OS areas. Certainly Linux."

Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform may not fare as well in Netbooks, analysts say.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform may not fare as well in Netbooks, say analysts Hewlett-Packard

Analysts, however, are not too sanguine about Qualcomm's prospects for garnering a big share of the Netbook market.

"My opinion is that Netbooks with non-x86 (non-Intel) processors will not be nearly as successful as x86-based Netbooks--regardless of any advantages they have in power consumption or cost," said Tom R. Halfhill, senior analyst at the Microprocessor Report.

The problem is that ARM-based Netbooks run Linux not Windows, Halfhill said.

"Of course, the vast majority of users care nothing about CPU architecture--except when it visibly affects the product they're using. When the operating system is in-your-face visible, as it is with Netbooks, few users stray from their comfort zone. In a mobile computer that's still perceived as a PC, they overwhelmingly prefer Windows over Linux," Halfhill said. There have also been reports that ARM processors face challenges supporting Flash video.

Not surprisingly, Intel agrees.

"We believe the Atom processor family will continue to have a significant performance benefit over ARM-based designs," Intel spokesman Bill Calder said. "And it remains to be seen how a highly fragmented ARM ecosystem and lack of software compatibility will meet consumer expectations for a good Internet experience."

To date, the only announced Snapdragon-based Netbook is a prototype from device maker Wistron.

"We expect Snapdragon-based designs to be as light, as thick as (the Wistron Netbook)--if not more so as the design experience goes on. We expect significantly better battery life than other architectures can achieve," Qualcomm's Frankel said.

So, initially--even by Qualcomm's account--Snapdragon may be a bigger factor in smartphones than Netbooks. "We have quite a few Netbook design wins. But actually in number we have more design wins in the smartphone space--quite a lot of interest in Snapdragon for Windows Mobile. And certainly we have a great relationship with Google for Android-based devices as well."

So, how will this Intel-Qualcomm competition shake out in the next 12 months? Snapdragon may be the chip to beat in smartphones and MIDs, but the jury is out on Netbooks, where Intel is firmly in control--and it's Intel's market to lose.

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About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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