QUALCOMM 4G MOBILE EXPERIENCE WORKSHOP, SAN FRANCISCO: Qualcomm talked up the importance of the modem in the processor value chain, warning that while there has been a lot of focus on the growing performance of application processors, “you ignore the modem at your own peril”.
And while the performance of the modem is not as easy to monitor and quantify as the application processor, with this component playing a significant role in both the connectivity performance and battery life, it has a significant impact on the end user.
“The modem is the foundation of the mobile experience. To be able to locate, to communicate, to collaborate, all of those things are centralised around the modem,” Alex Katouzian (pictured), senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm Technologies, said.
With the San Diego-based company facing greater competition in the device silicon market from rivals such as Intel, Nvidia, Samsung and ambitious Chinese rivals such as MediaTek and Spreadtrum, it used its event last week to highlight its belief that the application processor, which has become a key battleground, is only a single part of delivering mobility to end users.
“Processor companies coming from the PC space either haven’t built their own 4G modems or demonstrated any modem leadership, so they tend to take the conversation to the place that they know best, which is the CPU. Unfortunately, that’s irrelevant, lost in the noise of the equation of what constitutes a really good mobile experience,” Peter Carson, senior director of marketing at Qualcomm, said.
Indeed, some players have done some significant deals to address these shortcomings, such as Intel’s big-ticket purchase of the mobile unit of Infineon, and Nvidia’s acquisition of Icera.
For “power” users, accessing features such as 3G and 4G voice, SMS, email, and streaming services, the modem can be responsible for the lion’s share of power consumption, meaning that an efficient implementation can have a significant impact. But other industry players, including device makers, also have to take modem performance into account at an early stage of product development.
“When an OEM makes a choice on the chipset partner they are going to use, if they are designing high-tier flagship devices, there’s going to be a disproportionate amount of modem contribution to the overall power consumption profile. So for those guys, modem power consumption is central, not just to user behaviour, but to design, manufacturability and reliability,” Sandeep Pandya, senior director of product management, at Qualcomm, noted.
For lower-tier devices, where there may be higher use of less modem-intensive services such as gaming, video playback, and browsing over Wi-Fi, up to 40 per cent of power consumption could still be related to this element, meaning that performance is “still not insignificant”.
And with the modem being the critical element linking the device with the network, operators also stand to benefit from products which make the best use of the resources at hand, delivering the best quality connectivity to users.
“To the extent we say it’s the network, it’s always about the network, the device has a large part to play in the perception of network quality. It is the interdependence between what the network does and what the device does, and both have to be engineered very, very well for the user to not even have to worry about coverage,” Pandya continued.
This means that operators are keeping a close eye on performance, Katouzian noted.
“There are KPIs we get from the operators and the OEMs on a daily basis. Like, for example, call drops, how do you handover from one area to another, how does the interoperability between bands work – all of those are KPIs that they track and measure. They’re just not as exposed as the benchmarks that are currently available for CPUs,” he said.
Trumpeting the company’s position, the executive argued: “It’s not just having a CPU, it’s not just having bits and pieces. When you take a look at what’s involved in our chipset solutions, we have a leading edge CPU, leading edge graphics, leading edge DSP, of course leading edge modem, leading edge connectivity.”
“Any viable processor vendor or manufacturer has to have a modem to become viable in the mobile space. If you take a look at all our competitors, the ones that want to be serious players have either invested in or bought modem companies. The difference is we are two-to-three years ahead of most of them in terms of modem capabilities,” he continued.