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Qualcomm's new CEO talks wearables and phones (Q&A)

CNET sits down with Qualcomm's newly-named CEO, Steve Mollenkopf, to get a glimpse into the chipmaker's future.

Qualcomm's new CEO Steve Mollenkopf speaks at CES 2014. Jason Jenkins/ CNET
LAS VEGAS -- When it comes to mobile chips, Qualcomm is the company to beat. It will soon have a new CEO at the helm, Steve Mollenkopf, and it's his job to keep the momentum going.

Qualcomm, of course, now dominates the mobile chip business, providing its Snapdragon mobile processor to most marquee smartphones and some tablets. Its ability to bundle a processor with a cellular radio has been one of the keys to its success. However, competition in 4G LTE is expected to increase as rival products hit the market from companies such as Intel.

Qualcomm revealed Mollenkopf's appointment in a surprise announcement last month. Paul Jacobs, the current CEO and son of one of the company's founders, will remain at the wireless chipmaker to help guide the development of new technologies and its long-term opportunities.

CNET on Wednesday sat down for a chat with Mollenkopf at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The following are some lightly edited excerpts from that conversation:

CNET: What will be your biggest focuses as the new CEO of Qualcomm? Where will we see the company going?
Mollenkopf: I've been at the company for 20 years. I've been involved heavily with most everything you're familiar with at the company. In particular, the rise of the chip business to get to where it is over the last several years is something I'm very proud of. It's something I worked a lot on. Our embracing of smartphones and LTE and the move from being a very modem-centric company to being where we are today, I feel like that's something I'm very proud of.

We're going to continue to drive the things we talked about in the last years or so [such as smartphones, tablets, etc]. But I think we also have an opportunity to define what is the next thing. We get to do that while still doing exceedingly well on what is a big business today (mobile). In fact, it's the business that everyone wants to get into.

The trend at the show is everything wants to be connected. Everyone wants to basically embrace some form of smartphone technology. That's what's driving growth in consumer electronics now too.

What are those next big things?
Mollenkopf: If you look at our portfolio of things today it includes driving the core business, both chips and licensing in phones. Tablets, Internet of everything. We're growing content in these devices, meaning our ability to deliver additional technologies even in a device you already know us in is increasing. Then we have this incredible systems expertise to solve problems that are coming to the industry.

How does the industry take advantage of connectivity and the cloud to improve health care or eduction or improve the productivity or the use of our transportation system? The fact that cars are connected and they can all be connected together. We can provide tremendous amounts of bandwidth to everything. There's a lot of problems there that are difficult across multiple technologies that we think could represent business opportunities for us.

Our current things you know us about have long legs. That's the fun part about the company.

When will handset vendors be able to offer a single phone that works across every carrier and wireless technology (i.e., one phone for not only Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile but also the rest of the world)?
Mollenkopf: We're getting closer. Today it's quite complicated. Device complication has gone up a lot. It needs to abstract a lot of the fact this network and that network have different frequency bands, they have a different 3G mode so the backward compatibility or how a voice call is handled is very different. Qualcomm does all that. We hide that from the user and in many cases hide that complexity from OEMs.

Probably the biggest thing is the [radio frequency] front end. We're working on the RF360 [a technology introduced last year that addresses cellular radio frequency band fragmentation]. Part of that is to allow that to happen. We think that becomes more important also when you're delivering things like I want to buy pieces of consumer electronics. I want it to be used worldwide, but I just want to buy it on the Internet. That capability enables those businesses to exist.

What do you think about the wearables market and your opportunities in that area?
Mollenkopf: I think we're in one of those periods in the industry where there's a lot of innovation. A lot of people are trying different things. There are a lot of new players and ... a lot of existing players trying to do things. We don't know who's going to win. ... I think people will be wearing additional devices. Those devices may only do monitoring of something like motion or some healthcare related aspect and some may be full-up phones. There will be a pretty big proliferation of them.

To me, I look at that entire area as the extension of the smartphone. I'm enabling the smartphone to collect more data around me or about me, and I'm living in a sea of sensors. Not only does it create a new business for me, but it provides feature trajectory on the existing business. I think there's going to be a lot of innovation.

How is Toq selling? Have you signed up customers to make products based on the smartwatch?

Mollenkopft: Primarily why we did it was to showcase the Mirasol technology as well as wireless charging. ... For us, it's not really a business. Clearly in the size of Qualcomm, it's not really something that contributes. But it is a technology showcase and something that enables us to help some of our partners see what it is we're talking about and to experiment. And it helps us understand what we need to do to provide better technology to them.

The feedback is pretty good. It's still early days for the category and that product.