As Browsing Becomes the “Killer Use” in Mobile, Qualcomm Makes Web Technology a Priority
San Diego-based Qualcomm has traditionally been known as the world’s biggest maker of mobile phone chips—with most of that technology coming out of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, the company’s “QCT” division.
But Qualcomm crossed a kind of tipping point three years ago, when the software engineers at QCT began to outnumber the hardware engineers, according to Sayeed “Sy” Choudhury, a QCT director of product management. With wireless access accounting for an increasing share of Internet use, Qualcomm’s growing contingent of software developers has likewise expanded to tackle different facets of the wireless Web. “Some of these folks work on device drivers, others on enabling graphics, multimedia, telephony, data connectivity, the various [operating systems] platforms,” Choudhury says.
Web technology development, in particular, has become an increasingly important focus of the work done at Qualcomm’s San Diego headquarters, as well as at company outposts in Toronto, Raleigh, NC, and Haifa, Israel.
“Part of the reason we distributed the team was simply a hiring strategy, so there are enough skilled workers to grow these areas of competence in parallel.” Choudhury says. The goal with each functional block is to take the Android OS and Windows Phone operating system, and find ways to optimize key operations. Qualcomm then takes its chipsets, with the optimized code embedded in the operating system, and hands the lot over to its mobile device partners—the mobile phone manufacturers like Kyocera, HTC, Motorola, Sharp, Sanyo, LG, and Samsung. “Every three to four months, when there is an update for the operating system, Android for example, it’s necessary to go back again to make sure that each part is still optimized,” says Choudhury. He offered three examples:
—To take advantage of graphics processing unit (GPU) capabilities, Qualcomm’s software developers created a two-step process that chops a Web page into sub blocks, which can be stored in a device’s memory. As a result, the device can render just the part of a scene that changes, rather than trying to render the entire display screen for new scene.
—Similarly, Qualcomm’s software developers created ways to make the browser more aware of modem operations. Qualcomm’s Web development team mapped out what happens when a Web page is shut down, Choudhury says. A device’s wireless modem, which is off, must be restarted and each link to another website must be shut down. “It happens again and again over a period of 300 milliseconds,” Choudhury says. “So why not queue them all and wait to send them all at once.” The result, he says, is a 7 percent improvement in system power requirement.
“All of what we’re talking about has been about how we make browsing better for page downloading, smoother scrolling, and even smoother for multimedia playback,” Choudhury says. “This really goes back to that first goal—how do we enable first-in-class performance with our technology?”
On a related front, Choudhury says Qualcomm’s Web development team began to focus earlier this year on making Web applications what he calls “first-class citizens,” by working to make the performance of cloud-based programs run as well as native apps installed on a device.
For example, he says wireless device users can’t get at their contacts from the Web, but they can with a native application. “So we’ve embarked on an initiative to fix that, to make that functionality available where it’s not available, and to expand on that functionality where it is available but in a mediocre format,” he says.
Another example, he says, is in GPS, where some location capabilities are built into the browsers of most of today’s smart phones. A native application can take advantage of that raw GPS data to provide additional information to users, such as location and direction traveling. But in the browser, Choudhury says, such capabilities have been “dummied down” to one set of instructions that only provides users with the current location of their device. He sees an opportunity to expand GPS functionality, for example, by tying location-based data to a mobile device camera, audio recorder, and other sensors, and making all that functionality available from the Web browser.