Qualcomm’s desktop smartphone

Qualcomm has been talking a lot about computing lately. The CDMA-and-3G chipset maker made its name off of connectivity, but the wireless technologist has long since come to the realization that there is a lot more silicon in wireless devices it can still tap. It’s not making PC processors just yet, but Qualcomm is most certainly tackling that ephemeral not-quite-a-computer-but-definitely-not-a-phone space the industry hopes will become the future of the wireless device.
Today it unveiled Kayak, a platform ”alternative” to the PC, which uses a high-end 3G chip and applications processor to perform the browsing and Web 2.0 applications of computer without the high-end operating system and microprocessor. The set-up is designed to be a desktop device–albeit a small one–that draws its Internet access from the airwaves, not a wired broadband connection. It is therefore targeted at emerging markets where, more often than not, wireless is all you’ve got. Though it may not look like a phone, the first Kayak developed by Taiwan’s Inventec basically has the guts of one. It uses the same MSM7xxx platform that Qualcomm sells to handset makers for multimedia-and-data-intensive devices. It’s primary application, the browser that accesses the Internet and runs Web applications, is based on the same Opera technology popular in many phones today.

Calling Kayak a smartphone without the phone may sound like a put down, but that’s not my intention–if anything it goes to show just how powerful smartphones are today. Qualcomm, however, isn’t merely looking for new outlets for its old phone chips. The vendor has creating its own mobile computing line called Snapdragon, which places just as much emphasis on computing as it does connectivity. Snapdragon has won 30 design contracts from 15 different device manufacturers for any number of data-hungry handheld and portable gadgets. While we have yet to see any of these devices in the market, Qualcomm promises they will show up in the first half of 2009. Inventec’s first Kayak device won’t be one of them, but don’t be surprised if Snapdragon shows up in future versions.

Kayak is noteworthy for another reason. It may be a low-budget version of one, but it’s essentially a desktop computer. And it’s a desktop computer that doesn’t contain an Intel chip. For the longest time Intel and Qualcomm went about their merry ways occupying distinct sectors of the silicon industry, but the two are now crossing paths. Just as Qualcomm has been venturing into Intel’s turf with Snapdragon, Intel has been pushing into Qualcomm’s territory with its new processor Atom, a highly-scaled down version of its PC microprocessor targeted at mobile devices. Last month, Intel unveiled its new Atom-powered Moorestown platform for so-called mobile Internet devices (MIDs), as well as announced partnerships with 3G-module makers Ericsson and Option to boot. Partners, a showdown is a’ comin’.

Intel and Qualcomm are approaching the mobile computing device with different philosophies that can be best summed up by the word in  the term “mobile computing” each has chosen to emphasize (See Telephony Magazine’s July Feature Intel’s Wireless Dreamsfor the full treatment on Intel’s wireless plans). Intel stresses the “computing,” while Qualcomm focuses the “mobile,” and their platforms reflect that. Intel has started from its PC architecture based on the powerful X86 instruction set, paring it down to make it amenable to smaller lower-power devices. Qualcomm along with other wireless chipset makers have started with simpler mobility-optimized ARM processors, souping them up to meet the higher-order processing demands of a mobile computer. Consequently Intel started with PCs moved to laptops and then into converged devices like Nettops and Webbooks. Qualcomm started with voice-only cellphones, moved to feature and data phones and then smartphones and PDAs. They were bound to meet in the middle.

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