Widgets, Wallets and pausing live TV – Qualcomm’s vision for the future of the mobile phone

29 05 2008

You may have heard of US mobile company Qualcomm, but chances are you aren’t really sure quite what it does. Well you are in good company. I am in San Diego at the Brew conference (Brew is Qualcomm’s mobile phone developer platform) and after several keynotes, roundtables and one to ones my head is spinning at the breadth of products the company offers.

So while it has been hugely successful in making the chips by which a large percentage of the world’s mobile phones run on, it also has its own mobile TV platform, MediaFLO, is working on e-commerce via handsets and is trying to shape the future of social networking on mobile. And that’s only part of the story. CEO Paul Jacobs assures me that ‘there might be a lot of innovation at Qualcomm, but there is a common thread to it all. It is not disconnected.’

In working in so many mobile areas and given its close relationships with networks like Vodafone and Verizon Qualcomm is in a unique position to offer a perspective on how the future of mobile devices is shaping up.

Here then is Qualcomm’s take on the how mobile phone technology will develop in the next few years as delivered to the press and delegates at Brew. In some areas it is pioneering applications. In others, like mobile TV, it faces some pretty stiff competition.

1 Consumer electronics devices with integrated connectivity – Imagine if every different consumer electronics device you owned could instantly access the web to upload/download content whenever you wanted. That’s one of Qualcomm’s key visions (it was also a promise of the networks when they introduced 3G services) and one that it is starting to realise. The big example of this is the Kindle book reader which was launched by Amazon in the US last year. The device harnesses mobile networks to deliver book content to the device no matter where the reader is.

Another smart example is Qualcomm’s work with laptop makers to embed 3G/HSDPA chips into PC notebooks. The theory being that no matter where you are in the world you can access the web on the PC via a mobile network.

In theory this concept could be extended to music players that can grab tracks, cameras that can instantly upload images or even personal video players which can access video or TV content using Qualcomm’s MediaFLO technology.

Much of this functionality is already available via mobile phones – I am assuming that the 3G iPhone will offer over the air access to the iTunes store – and in many ways devices like the Kindle are intermediary gadgets as book readers will probably end up being incorporated into mobile handsets. Still it is an interesting concept and one that could yet yield a killer application for the technology.

2 In-car live TV – Qualcomm has rolled out its MediaFLO technology – which uses UHF frequencies to deliver a series of digital TV channels to mobile devices – across the US this year. As well as mobile phones it is targeting makers of large vehicles to add MediaFLO so that those in the back seats of cars can access live TV while they are one the move. This is a potentially huge and lucrative market both in the US and in Europe. However as a concept it is hardly new. Nokia were demonstrating digital TV using its rival DVB-H technology in cars as far back as 2000.

3 TV over mobile with added interactivity – One of the big questions for Qualcomm execs is how does MediaFLO, a service which at the moment offers only a selection of live linear TV channels, sit in a world where TV consumption is being usurped by online video sites like YouTube and Revision 3.

CEO Paul Jacobs told me that he believes there is ‘a pendulum swing in process in the way people consume video back towards live TV. We live in the real world in real time and that’s why I think live TV like sports events, news and weather will always appeal to consumers.’

However other company execs made two points as to how the MediaFLO platform and TV via mobile in general would develop to enhance that live viewing experience. Firstly it could offer more interactive content. ‘Suppose I was watching a movie and a hot girl or guy came on to the screen. I could pause the movie, press a button and find out who they were and get the latest gossip about them,’ said Executive Vice-President Len Lauer.

Secondly MediaFLO will soon get more content. This could mean enabling viewers to sideload their favourite online shows on to devices (just like an iPod) or possibly even enabling them to automatically download or stream shows over the air via the web to their device. So say for example if you were a huge devotee of indie music vidcast, PopJunkie the weekly shows could be automatically downloaded and then stored on your handset.

4 Developing the mobile wallet – The concept of M-Commerce, where people use their mobile phones to pay for goods and services, has been kicking around for over a decade now. However banks and consumers have been wary of taking up systems that they don’t feel are particularly secure. Qualcomm thinks the future could well be about making payments, as well as checking balances, via mobile and have already signed up a number of banks in the US to back their proposed services. It recently acquired Atlanta-based mobile banking specialist Firethorn Holdings, a move which has once again ignited discussions about the potential of banking via handsets.

One of the benefits for consumers could be that their phone could replace all their credit cards simultaneously. So they could choose whether they wanted to pay for services and goods using Mastercard, Visa or whatever else they have.

5 Loyalty cards built into your mobile phone – In tandem with the mobile wallet concept Qualcomm believes that very soon loyalty cards won’t exist in a physical form but user’s accounts will be incorporated into their handset. So for example you’ll be able to pay for your Starbucks coffee by waving your handset in front of a terminal which will connect using NFC (Near Field Communication) technology. This will then take the money from your Starbucks account.

Users might also be able to replace their football club season tickets with their mobile and possibly have a virtual Oyster card to pay for bus and train travel, integrated into their handset.

There are massive opportunities to develop the phone as a mobile wallet. The major hurdle is overcoming the scepticism of consumers. Imagine losing your mobile. You may then have lost access to your back account, credit cards, loyalty cards and more. The key to the success of the mobile wallet is not just about developing a secure system, but also ensuring that consumers have confidence that the system is secure.

6 Enhanced social networking over mobile – The big opportunity around social networking via mobile is the concept of presence. Imagine being able to go on to Facebook, Bebo etc and not only read the latest updates of what your friends were doing but also be able to see where they are and invite those they are near you to a coffee shop which you then text them the details of. Presence really could be the killer application for mobile social networking. However there are already some social networking start ups in Europe using this concept like Gypsii and take up of their services has been slow.

7 Development of widgets as short cuts to web content, mobile commerce etc – Widgets on mobile phones aren’t new as any iPhone owner knows. However as Andrew Gilbert, President Qualcomm Europe argues ‘There’s only so much web information you can assimilate on a mobile. The obvious answer is to add widgets.’ They could provide a really easy way for users to access their favourite internet content while at the same time give operators the chance to push core services to their customers.

Qualcomm has big plans using a system called Plaza to enable the networks to develop their own widgets. Andrew Gilbert believes it will be enthusiastically received by networks who he thinks will prefer an open system which they can customise to rival more closed systems like Nokia’s Ovi.

Mobile phone Widgets are an obvious move in many ways. It will be interesting to see though how networks, many of whom not long ago had a walled garden for their internet services, will feel about a system that gives the user so much more control over the web content their mobile phone accesses.

8 Push to share – Push to talk, a kind of walkie talkie system for mobiles which uses phone networks, has been a huge hit in the US. However for cultural and possibly sound business reasons, it hasn’t caught on in Europe at all.

The latest version of the technology may however provide Qualcomm with a big door by which to take the concept global. Push to share enables the user to quickly and easily send files and data to multiple users at the touch of a button. For example a user could send an image to ten people without even having to create a message and add their addresses.

We are exploring opportunities outside of the Push to Talk world, explains Andrew Gilbert. ‘An instantaneous one to many digital connection between devices is very powerful and it doesn’t have to only deliver voice.’ It’ll be interesting to see if there any takers in Europe.

9 Peer to peer exchanges over mobile – As an aside Andrew Gilbert mentioned that Qualcomm was very keen on developing peer to peer technology via mobiles. The advantage of this is that it could potentially bring down the cost to the network of users accessing content like video.

Judging by the success of the BBC’s iPlayer consumers have few reservations about using peer to peer technology so it will be interesting to see how Qualcomm develops this. There is already one company, Peerbox, which offers video sharing via mobile on a peer to peer basis.

10 DVR style experiences on mobile phones – Viewers who are used to pausing, rewinding and recording live TV should be able to do the same things on their mobile. The big barrier to developing this at the moment according to Omar Javaid, Senior Director of Business Development, is that phones don’t have enough storage. Higher capacity flash memory cards should sort that one out so there is a real opportunity for Qualcomm and others to extend some of the best functionality of digital TV to mobile.

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