CES - Qualcomm focuses on "pocketable computers"

Qualcomm discussed at CES its vision for a category of device that fits between phones and notebooks.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Qualcomm offered a sneak peek of its concept for an ultramobile PC for the largely untapped market where it will meet Intel head on.

Qualcomm for the first time demonstrated a prototype of a device reminiscent of Nokia's N800. Qualcomm calls it a pocketable computer because "if you can't carry it in your pocket, you can't carry it with you," said Sanjay Jha, chief operating officer and president of Qualcomm's CDMA Technologies Group. The device, which has a slide-out keyboard, runs Windows Mobile and has HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access), GPS (Global Positioning Service), Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The screen is 800 pixels wide so that most Web sites designed for PCs render nicely, Jha said. That means users could view the regular YouTube.com site, rather than a version of the site designed for mobile phones, he said.

The prototype runs on the 7201 chip, a new chip released recently by Qualcomm, but the design is intended to showcase Qualcomm's new Snapdragon line of chips. Those chips are now being sampled by hardware vendors, with initial commercial devices expected out this year, he said.

Despite the slow take-off of such devices that sit between notebooks and phones -- such as the Samsung Q that runs on Microsoft's Windows-based ultra-mobile PC platform -- Jha said other factors are finally falling into place to increase their appeal. Faster wireless networks, better processors that require less power and in the near future, the openness of mobile networks and billing plans should increase demand and sales, he said.

Still, Qualcomm doesn't expect that this category of device will approach the widespread adoption of mobile phones. He figures that smartphones make up about 200 million of the entire 1.3 billion handsets on the market. "I think it's possible to envision a device that sells in that ballpark volume," Jha said.

The chip maker will face Intel in this market, which is also introducing chips for devices that are smaller than laptops but bigger than cell phones. In fact, Apple is rumored to be developing an ultra-mobile PC product based on Intel's processors.

"We come at this problem from an understanding of wireless," Jha said. "Intel comes at it from an understanding of computing. We both bring different things to the table. Time will tell how our vision works versus Intel's direction."

The companies are also making different bets in terms of wireless network compatibility. "We're working on WiMax as well but our priority is clearly 3G," Jha said. Intel, a big backer of WiMax, has said that it may build WiMax into Menlow, its platform for ultramobile devices, for release some time this year.

Nokia's N800 devices fit into a similar category between a phone and a notebook. Despite the fact that Nokia and Qualcomm are in a bitter licensing dispute, Jha praised the N800, saying it sold more initially than Nokia expected. Nokia has typically declined to reveal sales figures for the devices.

Qualcomm doesn't envision that Snapdragon will only be used in "pocketable computing" devices, the company's preferred term for what are commonly called ultra-mobile PCs. The chips could be used in navigation devices with wireless connectivity to deliver traffic information to users. Gaming devices, dedicated Internet devices or gadgets like Amazon's digital book-reader Kindle could also use the chips, Jha said.

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