There is no better way to explain the pace of change in the computing world than by drawing parallels between Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise, and the two popular computing devices: the smartphone and the PC.
In just over a decade, the humble phone has transformed into a mini-computer, while the PC disappeared. Smartphones have surpassed their older PC siblings in speed, performance and in some cases storage. Mobile phones have become ubiquitous, and the microprocessors that power them have become more sophisticated.
Qualcomm has dominated the smartphone chipset market. And until Apple entered the scene to create its own system-on-chip (SoC), Qualcomm was the leading mobile chip maker. The company’s Snapdragon processors have consistently improved the power and performance of smartphones over the years. Now the San Diego, California-based company is looking to spruce up the PC.
Kedar KondapSVP and GM, Compute and Gaming at Qualcomm Technologies spoke with The HindusJohn Xavier about the convergence between the phone and the PC, the era of GPUs, the importance of milliseconds in games, 5G and competition in chip production for PCs.
Can you explain your role as head of computing at Qualcomm?
Kedar Kondap: I was part of mobile product management for over a decade and about a year ago I took this role to lead data management. This is a very important market; we want to expand beyond mobile. I’ve been with Intel for seven years, before joining Qualcomm, so I’m familiar with the PC market in general. There is a lot of convergence we want to drive between a phone and a PC. So we are convinced that there is a lot of innovation needed in a PC. Over the past 10 years, there has been so much innovation in smartphones, right from screens to cameras. We want to drive some of this experience into the PC, which has seen very limited innovation in the last several years. So our goal is to drive convergence between the phone and the PC.
Are you looking to recreate what happens in the handset on a PC? Or are you looking at a whole new paradigm?
KK: We think about it in the context of user experiences. We want to bring the same user experiences from the phone to a PC. Over the years, most smartphone consumer experiences have become seamless, from booking a cab to GPS-based navigation. Several GPS satellites are triangulated to get the best possible GPS signal for the phone. Sensors to track running and walking have also become effective. This has reduced battery consumption. All this has happened because a lot of intelligence has been put into the smartphone. It understands when a person is actively using their phone in certain areas. These are some user experiences we focus on. When we run an architecture, we run it with a power-first approach. Even today, if you ask any consumer what’s most important – whether it’s a PC or a phone – they’ll tell you it’s battery life. They want the best battery life. So we are focused on such experiences that just don’t exist on a PC today. We want to change.
We are now in the GPU era when graphical computing plays a major role. How do you deal with these times? And what do you see as the next big thing in computing?
KK: Over the past 10 years, the GPU has changed the way many things were used in a phone, or even a PC, with better user interfaces with denser layers on the smartphone. Ray tracing is now starting to come to phones. You get better shadows and better rendering. Over the next 10 years, we believe there is a third and important metric, which is AI. This will be completed by a connected intelligent edge technology. This means that much of the processing will take place on the PC. We want to make sure that applications can benefit from running on Snapdragon, and they benefit from the heterogeneous architecture that we bring to PCs.
In phones today, if you look at Qualcomm architecture, you have a CPU and a GPU. Beyond that we have AI, a neural processing unit that is strong in terms of the number of networks it runs, and the number of different objects it can recognize. Then you have a dedicated video and audio core. And then dedicated sensors and safety functions are tightly integrated. So if you’re running a video call, for example, we want to be able to run dedicated aspects of the video call to take advantage of the architecture like connecting your camera to face unlock through a secure pipeline through our SoC. These are things we want to bring from the phone to the PC.
In phones today, if you look at Qualcomm architecture, you have a CPU and a GPU. Beyond that, we have AI neural processing units that are strong in terms of the number of networks it runs, and the number of different objects it can recognize. Then you have a dedicated video and audio core. And then dedicated sensors and safety functions are closely integrated. So if you’re running a video call, for example, we want to be able to run dedicated aspects of the video call to take advantage of the architecture like connecting your camera to face unlock through a secure pipeline through our SoC. These are things we want to bring from the phone to the PC.
So how do you plan for that convergence?
KK: Our first step is to ensure that all the apps running on smartphones today run seamlessly on Snapdragon. Second, they take advantage of the architecture we have. Then they will go beyond that and take advantage of our AI for calculation.
Intel, AMD and NVIDIA are also looking to take part in the PC market. How do you see the competition in this space?
KK: We recognize that it is an established player, but at the same time there is room for innovation within PCs. It just hasn’t happened in the last several years. So when you start bringing in app developers to build applications, porting will start to happen. That’s why, together with Microsoft, we announced the Windows developer kit Volterra. We’re releasing it to more developers because as they start taking advantage of this architecture, porting things to Snapdragon will happen. And consumers will see a huge difference.
(For insights on emerging topics at the intersection of technology, business and politics, subscribe to our tech newsletter Today’s Cache.)
How do you plan to ride the 5G wave?
KK: There are many use cases. 4G solved bandwidth lag, which has enabled us to stream movies so easily on our smartphones. Now with 5G, it will only expand even more. We work with many developers when it comes to latency reduction. I think there is an angle where we will bring in more use cases for PCs.
Can you share your view on the gaming market? How do things shape up?
KK: If you look at the phone, as a category, we have the Snapdragon Elite Gaming. And the reason we set Elite Gaming apart from the rest is because there are several features that we specifically put in, such as Variable Rate Shading (which allows mobile games to run faster, with higher resolutions and lower power, while maintaining the highest visual fidelity) . There are so many things we have already done in this room. In this segment, a millisecond of delay is the difference between winning and losing, especially in eSports leagues. So we spent a lot of time reducing latency, understanding the players WiFi network, and in that network, how is the player on static IP. All of these things drive differentiation in Elite Gaming.