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How Qualcomm aims to be everywhere -- not just phones

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Qualcomm already rules the mobile world -- now it wants to tackle all of the other gadgets in your life. But none of this should be a surprise if you've been paying attention. Its Snapdragon chips already power most high-end smartphones, so it makes sense for Qualcomm to leverage that experience into chips for wearables, cars, home appliances and more. The company is even eyeing the server market, a move that should have Intel shaking in its hermetically sealed bunny boots.

It's all a big change for Qualcomm, which started out as more of a background player until it realized it could do a lot more than just power your wireless connection. After beating out Texas Instruments as the world's leading mobile chipset provider in 2007 (according to iSuppli), Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon system-on-a-chip. That wrapped together hardware components like a CPU, GPU and wireless connectivity into a tidy package, making it easier for device makers to drop it into their designs. Its unveiling couldn't be timed any better, as that was also the year Apple unveiled the iPhone and gave the mobile industry a swift kick in the pants. With Snapdragon, Qualcomm ended up having the right solution at just the right time as everyone scrambled to compete with Apple.

"What we're finding in addition to the [smartphone] market, we're now interested in growing outside the core business into what we call adjacent markets," Raj Talluri, Qualcomm's SVP of product, told us. That's a fairly subdued way of framing Qualcomm's journey into entirely new areas, which includes wearables, cars and virtual reality, all of which are looking more like the smartphone market every day. It's not just hubris leading Qualcomm into invading more devices; it's a logical step forward, according to Talluri. "When we get into new markets, we look at ones that are growing, exciting, with a level of innovation that we can deliver ... That's really at the heart of [what] Qualcomm is really about."

Qualcomm's Toq smartwatch (above) serves as an example of what's possible with the company's existing technology. Like most health trackers, it can track your steps and other activity. But it's also one of the few devices to include the company's Mirasol display, which gives it an always-on color screen that can last for several days. And it's equipped with Qualcomm's wireless-charging capability, which is slowly making its way to other devices. Samsung, LG and ASUS are already using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 400 in their Android Wear smartwatches, and others are likely to follow. But Qualcomm doesn't yet have anything developed specifically for wearables -- gadget makers are just plugging in the same chip that phones are using.

Even Qualcomm admits it doesn't have much of a plan for wearables yet. "Right now, we [the tech world] are experimenting with a bunch of concepts [around wearables]," Qualcomm EVP Cristiano Amon told us. "We need all of that experimentation to somewhat settle out, then we'll probably think about doing something more specific." That wait-and-see approach makes sense. It's tough to figure out how to tackle a new market until there's a clearer sense of what it would look like. But the company also needs to be prepared to jump into new opportunities quickly. Complacency is dangerous. Just ask Intel, which missed out on the mobile chip market entirely and is still trying to find its way in.

But if you want to get a sense of how Qualcomm will approach wearables, you just need to look at the technology it's developed so far, Talluri says. Its innovations around making phones more power-efficient could eventually help smartwatches last more than just a few hours. And you'll also be able to do a lot more with a smartwatch once it has a cellular modem of its own, rather than being tethered to your smartphone.

The company is also taking a similar approach to cars (above), a market it's quite familiar with. Its chips already get cars connected to services like OnStar, but now Qualcomm is looking to modernize dashboards and backseat entertainment systems. We're used to touchscreens, apps and seamless connectivity on our phones, so why not our cars? And if the whole self-driving thing actually takes off, we could end up relying on cars in entirely different ways in the future. Qualcomm hasn't announced any partners for its smart-car initiative yet, but Talluri noted that this is one market where progress will be a bit slower. The design cycle for cars typically takes several years, a glacial pace compared to the annual upgrades we see in the gadget world. That's something that could change soon, though, now that carmakers are eager to take advantage of smart-car platforms like Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay.

Qualcomm's also played a role in shaping the modern virtual reality renaissance by working with both Oculus VR and Samsung. For the Gear VR, which is powered by a Snapdragon-equipped Galaxy Note 4, it helped Samsung achieve a smooth frame rate of 60 FPS and balance power efficiency, Talluri noted. He also pointed out that VR could also end up being one of the first real justifications for throwing 4K displays into phones. You probably won't be able to tell the difference between a 1080p and 4K phone screen through normal usage, but press that screen up against your eyeballs in a VR headset and all of a sudden those extra pixels don't seem so superfluous after all.

And while Qualcomm's foray into server chips won't affect consumers directly, it's still a huge move. For the first time, Qualcomm is entering a market that Intel already dominates. And it'll be a huge boon to server admins eagerly awaiting ARM-based servers, which offer power efficiency over raw computing muscle. That could lead to things like cloud storage prices dropping even further as it becomes cheaper for companies to operate those servers.

But as it eyes new territory, Qualcomm isn't ignoring the products and markets it's already known for. It's going to continue pushing LTE chipsets as emerging markets, especially China, upgrade from 3G (and, in some cases, even 2G) networks. It's also seeing huge adoption in China for all of its mobile chips, from the low-end to the high-end for upstart manufacturers like Xiaomi. And, of course, it has huge upgrades in the works for the Snapdragon line. (No, I couldn't get any specifics, but one exec mentioned the new chips would sport some "very disruptive" features. Your guess is as good as mine.)

As successful as it has been, it's worth noting Qualcomm didn't even know that its full-throated support for the smartphone market would pay off. "We weren't sure it was going to be good for the company," CEO Steven Mollenkopf said last month at a CommNexus event (check out the full session below). "Sometimes you have to make bets against yourself to be successful." And now, as it eyes the nascent world of wearables and the connectivity of everything, we're seeing the company make similar bets. They won't all pay off -- but if Qualcomm manages to play an essential role in just a few new successful markets, it won't be long until it's truly everywhere.

[Top photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Smart car illustration: Qualcomm]

In this article: chipsets, Qualcomm, smartphones, wireless
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