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Barrage of new chips boosts faith in Qualcomm

As it gears up to announces its fourth quarter results next week, Qualcomm has reason to be more confident than it has been for some time. Its share price has risen steadily this month, topping $60 – not high by the standards of a firm which has sometimes hit $100, but a big improvement on a depressed September in which it came close to multiyear lows.

The confidence comes partly from the ongoing restructuring, which is seeing the firm adjusting to changing market conditions – notably the increased competition from MediaTek and China, at a time of slowing smartphone growth – with staff reductions and divestments. There is still speculation that Qualcomm might break itself in half, splitting off the licensing business, but that now looks less likely, which is itself a factor in stabilizing the stock.

But cost cutting does not deliver sustainable recovery, and Qualcomm, true to form, is coupling that with redoubled efforts to develop new markets, and do that ahead of its rivals both in timescales and advanced technology. Earlier this month it showed off its first high end SoC targeted at cloud infrastructure such as C-RAN and servers. Last week it unveiled a quartet of new products at the Broadband World Forum, including 802.11ac Wave 2 WiFi. This week, it’s the turn of the internet of things (IoT), with new LTE modems for connected devices, and a push into security cameras, which Qualcomm claims it can make “conscious”.

The theme of making inert objects “conscious” – context-aware and responsive, not merely capable of making connections and collecting data – has often turned up in Qualcomm presentations, and in March it demonstrated its Zeroth ‘brain chip’ in a smartphone, bringing artificial intelligence to a mobile object. The Zeroth AI software also turns up in the new camera platform.

The reference design for a smart home camera can be seen as the first commercial implementation of its conscious computing ideas, if a very specific one. The design is based on the Snapdragon 618 processor, which is far more powerful than chips typically found in home cameras (it is 64-bit and features six ARM Cortex-A72 and -A53 cores). That can support two cameras at once, and makes the system work far more quickly because most of the processing is done locally, not in the cloud.

This reveals the Qualcomm agenda – to make the client or edge-based devices, in which its chips are so strong the seat of artificial intelligence, rather than the centralized machine learning platforms where Intel is the dominant silicon provider and the smarts are controlled by IBM or Google. Zeroth is key to this agenda, but the Snapdragon camera indicates the same directions.

More prosaically, it also opens up new addressable markets for midrange processors like the 618, which are under the toughest pressure, in terms of competition and margins, in the smartphone sector. Raj Talluri, SVP of product management in mobile computing, commented in a statement: “We’re tapping into our immense portfolio to build custom platforms for key segments within the IoT, and connected cameras are one of these areas that can benefit.”

The platform also includes an integrated X8 Cat-7 LTE modem with carrier aggregation support and global mode; new generation Adreno graphics processor and Hexagon DSP; an IP camera software developers’ kit (SDK); support for 4K HEVC video; and video analytics and imaging capabilities. The LTE connectivity will raise issues about data plans with the service provider, but Qualcomm says it allows the cameras to be placed anywhere with power, rather than tied to the home WiFi network.

“We’ve done a lot of work getting cameras and computer vision optimized in the phone space,” Talluri told TheVerge. “Typically it’s harder in the phone space – a phone has a pinhole camera and is always moving – but now we’re bringing that technology into this space where the application is a little different, but the technology we built applies perfectly.” The result, he said, is “a conscious camera of what’s happening in the scene”.

That consciousness is achieved with software to perform on-camera video analytics such as object detection, facial detection and recognition and multi-object tracking, harnessing Zeroth to classify different objects.

By bringing the intelligence to the local site, Qualcomm believes the cameras will be able to go a step further than current cloud-based systems – for instance, not just distinguishing residents of the home from strangers, but being able to ignore ‘safe’ incidents, like a car driving past outside, and not waste time and processing power by uploading images of them.

Also eyeing the IoT, Qualcomm introduced two low power LTE modems for 4G-only IoT devices, a market it has, so far, largely left to specialist suppliers like Sequans and Altair. The MDM9207-1 and MDM9206 are particularly targeted at smart meters and other smart city end points and are clearly designed to improve the chances of low power LTE being a standard network for city deployments, rather than alternatives like Sigfox, LoRa or the emerging WiFi 802.11ah.

Meanwhile, at the Broadband World Forum, Qualcomm harnessed its Ikanos acquisition and launched a G.fast chip, which was adopted by Sagemcom of France for a home gateway product.

Accompanying the chip is a full-blown home gateway specification, the Vx585 reference platform. This is built around its series of xDSL chips and processors and connectivity software tools. Qualcomm Atheros is one of the few companies (of course Broadcom is another) which can wrap the processor, the WiFi and the DSL components into a single system-on-chip, all of its own design. By adding the full range of ADSL all the way to G.fast, as well as the emerging VDSL 35b profile extensions, it puts itself in a tiny group of providers that can provide this complete set, along with Broadcom and Israeli start-up Sckipio.

“The combination of Qualcomm Atheros’ broad home networking portfolio and Ikanos’ advanced wired modem technology offers a complete solution for a wide range of home gateway products to better serve the carrier segment,” said Irvind Ghai, VP of product management.

Qualcomm may well be targeting mobile backhaul – and its traditional customers – with G.fast as much as home broadband. Its Insight-BXM software is designed to operate within an SDN/NFV framework.

The chip giant also came out with the IPQ40x8/x9 SoC ‘gateway on a chip’, based on the Qualcomm Internet Processor (IPQ), its VIVE WiFi, built-in Gigabit Ethernet, StreamBoost software, and with support for dual-band simultaneous transmission and LTE backhaul. This integrates two 2×2 radios capable of up to 1.73Gbps maximum PHY rate, a quad-core ARM CPU and a Gigabit Ethernet switch on the same chip.

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