Fireside Interview on 5G with Cristano Amon and Alex Katouzian, Qualcommby Dr. Ian Cutress on December 2, 2019 8:00 AM EST
A little while back, ahead of Qualcomm’s upcoming Tech Summit, we spoke to President of Qualcomm Cristano Amon and SVP/GM of Qualcomm’s Mobile Technologies Alex Katouzian. Qualcomm’s march in the high-end smartphone space during 2019 has been impressive, capturing all the flagship devices from companies that don’t build their own silicon. 2019 has been a key arena for 5G as well, with over 150 5G smartphones coming to market all on Qualcomm solutions. Then there’s the little matter of Windows on Snapdragon, hopefully becoming a tour-de-force with the 8cx chipset.
We quizzed Cristiano and Alex on all three sides of business and how it relates to Qualcomm’s partnerships, strategy, and future. The discussion provided a deeper insight into what lies ahead for Qualcomm, given how they see the market, and ended up as a nice little teaser for Qualcomm’s Tech Summit in a few days.
Dr. Ian Cutress
As always with our transcriptions, they’re tidied up a little for readability, and sometimes the order is changed based on how topics bounce around.
Many thanks to Gavin Bonshor for his transcription
Windows on Snapdragon
Ian Cutress: Regarding the Windows on Snapdragon ecosystem, you have now been at it for three or four generations. In that time it has been a very Qualcomm driven enterprise, and yet there are other Arm hardware partners who might want to partake. Is there room in that ecosystem, or are you happy to drive the use case and form factor?
Cristiano Amon: If you look at a company like Microsoft, historically it has a development process that is fairly focused on its primary silicon partners. For us they’ve been very focused on optimizing the solution to the hardware. When we started down this journey, with Windows on Arm, there was a lot of work for us to do, and a lot of work for Microsoft to do. When you say this has been Qualcomm driven, it has really been both Qualcomm and Microsoft driven, as we both do heavy lifting: we focus on creating the best hardware that we can, and in 8cx we have a great example of that as our dedicated platform for PCs to meet the performance requirements for users. For Microsoft, they have been optimizing the Windows performance not only for a CPU centric solution, but specifically to our SoC.
A great example of this is when we show multitasking side-by-side with Intel. In our demo, it’s very easy to see Intel dropping frames for video playback and such, which means that Microsoft is working directly to enable our hardware acceleration technologies. On top of that, Microsoft is addressing some of the pain points that people like to bring up – we can run legacy win32 apps, and there are plenty of popular Windows tools now being ported directly to Arm, like office, and things like that, as well as being optimized for our hardware. So I feel that the approach that Microsoft has is very different to the idea of ‘how many pounds of low-end tablets can we support’, but it’s about delivering the connected PC experience that drives the future of both companies. Particularly with Microsoft, who also wants to encourage users onto Azure, oneDrive, Office365 and other things. Microsoft is very keen on working with Qualcomm on this, and they’re focused on making sure the experience drives the future of computing.
IC: This is more a Microsoft question, but do you not feel it not assist Microsoft (and Qualcomm) to support more than just Snapdragon, to help build out the ecosystem?
CA: If you think about problems to solve, Microsoft today has three suppliers: Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm. The PC space is well defined, but you can actually create the same or better experience with a fully rounded SoC that offers better battery life and connectivity! I find it interesting that when people say ‘Windows on Arm’, the Arm specific part is actually just a small piece of what we have to do. We prefer to say ‘Windows on Snapdragon’, because this is really what it is with our partnership with Microsoft.
Now in the future, if Apple moves their SoC architecture to the Mac Book, Microsoft is going to want to have access to the best possible devices that can compete in the future of connectivity. In that is support for enterprise services, like Azure. So naturally we expect Microsoft to pick the best Arm SoC vendor, and focus their R&D efforts into supporting that solution. That’s my vantage point, and I don’t expect Microsoft is going to want to go after a low-end Arm notebook or tablet market in the same way.
IC: Would it ever be beneficial, from your point of view, to see a ‘Windows on Exynos’, or ‘Windows on Kirin’ device, to help drive scale?
CA: I’ll say no, and the reason is because we have to invest ahead of scale. We took a strategic decision that we’re going to go drive conversions of mobile PCs come hell or high water. We decided that we were going to invest and build a product that’s all about making the best PC experience possible, for consumers and for professional use cases. I think that if you think about it, the solution to the obstacle of success is the software ecosystem. You have to create the software ecosystem and you have to bring it to the enterprise, and I think consistency of performance is what we’re looking for right now. A multi-vendor market, with software R&D efforts split in several different directions, might not work for this sort of product category.
IC: What are current sales like, for Windows on Snapdragon devices?
Alex Katouzian: We’re easily shipping over 1000 pieces a day. Some might consider this small, but we think it’s a growing market with people who want a differentiated user experience.
IC: With the current crop of Windows on Snapdragon devices, we already have Samsung with an 8cx device and a Lenovo Yoga 8cx in the works, one might argue that the key value that Windows on Snapdragon could bring is to the commercial enterprise space, with something like a Thinkpad. Are we there yet?
CA: I’ll say that the first waves of devices were targeted towards the consumer. Then we had to wait until we could get Windows 10 Enterprise Edition, which came in around the Snapdragon 850 time frame. With the 8cx we now have the performance that compares with the devices in that commercial enterprise space, like the i5 family. So I believe we’re in the very beginning of this journey into the enterprise. If I go back to our previous conversation, I said that the enterprise market is the ultimate goal – this is where our interests are more aligned. Our focus here is 100% aligned with Microsoft, because of their enterprise cloud strategy. What our benefit is with the 8cx is commercialization – we now have the first of the 8cx devices being presented and as you have noticed these have been designed towards the enterprise market. The hardware attributes and functionality of the 8cx and the devices which have it are pointed towards the enterprise. We have a laser focus here, and we’ve been working actively with Microsoft to get this to happen.
AK: From a ThinkPad perspective, we’re also working very closely with Lenovo on these type of products as well. They all see these platforms for the enterprise as a value-add to their business, especially with performance, battery, and connectivity. Then if you tie that back into the mobile data wireless operators, they also see a big advantage when we look at 5G connectivity, and having always-connected devices in the enterprise space, along with Qualcomm small cells. It’s like a three party or four party type of solution with a laser focus. This is where we are.
5G and Modem Integration
IC: Current 8cx solutions rely on external 5G modems (external to the main SoC) in order to support 5G connectivity. We’re still in a 4G/5G transition phase – would you expect an integrated 5G SoC/modem as a single piece of silicon in this sort of form factor?
AK: Absolutely. If you go back to the 4G days when it was launched, we took all of the 3GPP specifications for 4G that were defined and we put it in a bit of silicon. Over the course of a couple of years, you hone in on the features and the functionality that are most useful – you figure out different partitioning and architectures for your modem to make it smaller, and then that gets moved onto the main SoC. That’s exactly what is going to happen with 5G as well. As you’ve already heard, we are going to have integrated 5G SoCs coming in 2020. The life of a standard mobile PC is in the region of 2-3 years, and you’re not going to have a new mobile SoC every year, so the next generation after 8cx is where you should look for an integrated solution.
IC: We currently have a bifurcated strategy with 4G and 5G, given that some markets have been quicker to adopt different parts of the 5G standards than others. Is that strategy of separating 4G and 5G silicon expected to continue long term, or will there be a right time to go for a single integrated 5G philosophy across the board?
AK: I think the good part right now is that we have a line, a product line of devices that span our entire portfolio. In PC devices, we have the 8cx at the top, but we also have a version of the 8cx called the 8c. It will be a little less powerful, but it targets parts of our line-up in-between the 8cx and the 850. And there’s another one coming, so you will have a whole line-up – some of them 4G, some of them 5G.
IC: Is the smartphone market ready for 5G in the mid-range?
CA: Yes. You have to look at all the stakeholders and why we’re so focused on scaling right now. There are three parts to this answer.
First, think from the operator’s perspective. It’s very clear, you can argue, that you can have a conversation about how fast you are going to build coverage, how fast we are reforming the spectrum, but the trends are very clear: users are using more data, and the average data consumption per month is going up. If you look at 5G in Korea, there are 2 million subscribers, and the data from KT (Korea Telecom) is that average data per user has doubled. So from the operator perspective, you’re going to get to a point where it is uneconomical to give unlimited data plans on 4G, and there is a need to switch for 5G, as 5G offers you a lower cost per bit and gives the user to have a premium experience with less congestion. Operators want to move you onto 5G for a variety of reasons, but that one is key from a user experience perspective.
IC: We’ve seen a few operators show resistance to providing affordable 5G plans. From my perspective, aside from the cost of current devices, that’s somewhat of a limiting factor.
CA: Depending on the market there may be some segmentation of price plans, and I think that network slicing is going to enable this. I feel that every new technology that hits the market is expected to have a price premium for that extra performance. But overall, the economics, from the operator perspective, there’s one element on the revenue side and that’s how it is priced to the consumers. But in terms of operating costs, 5G brings about a different cost equation. Especially if you can build out knowing how the customers will use data in the future.
It’s hard for me to say what the operators will exactly do, but I’ll tell you that we’re still at an initial scale-out. The thing is, having worked at an operator, it’s all about transitions from one generation of technology to the next. At the beginning of those transitions, you have a non-ideal situation, based on hardware and deployment. Even in Europe today, we still have operators with 2G. As operators have migrated from 2G to 3G then to 4G, you have to adjust that cost equation, paying maintenance, electricity, paying all those things, and in the beginning of a transition, you have to run multiple networks, and then by getting people on board helps smooth the deployment out to future sites. So I think you’re going to see the equation of the economics being amortised as more users sign up, along with CapEx (capital expenditure) and OpEx (operational expenditure). How they do that deployment, in a transition phase, depends on the technology, but ultimately it’s a drive to a lower cost per bit. 5G is designed for this, and the data usage model will change: customers might not have a fixed line into the home in the more, and use 5G for that last mile of cable. This is why scale is so important.
For part two of the question ‘is the smartphone market ready for 5G in the mid-range’, we should consider that we now have a very mature smartphone market. In a mature smartphone market like the United States, the number of people with at least a ‘good’ device is high, and people buy knew phones every 2.5-3 years. In Europe it’s more 3-4 years. So if you’re going to buy a phone right now, and you already know about 5G and heard that 5G is coming, you can end up with a device for 2-3 years that won’t support the fastest speeds or get the best user experience. Users who know about 5G will want a 5G phone with how fast 5G is being supported.
The third part of my answer is that the device ecosystem is mature ahead of the network: the devices are ready and the network is catching up. Unlike the transitions to 3G and to 4G, where the operators were first, here at Qualcomm we have been accelerating and driving the device adoption of 5G. So even if you never use the 5G modem in the device, it’s still a very competitive unit, such as the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, from the industrial design, battery life, and all these things. With the device ecosystem being ready, the operators are getting there, and with more phones enabling 5G today, users aren’t going to want to be stuck on a 4G smartphone.
The last piece that you don’t see right away with one of these new devices is the 5G – there is a bigger difference between premium and the mid-range here. If I have a Samsung high tier device, or even a mid-tier device, and then I go buy the premium tier, what I will see is the premier tiere has a better camera, a higher end display, maybe a bigger screen with more screen area, more memory, better graphics, and the games probably play a little better. The services on both devices are still kind of the same – I still have WhatsApp, I still have Instagram. Some might perform better, some might be worse. With 5G, it’s all a little different. When it comes to the question of say, streaming 4K video, it’s a very binary result: you either have it or you don’t. If I want to stream some games, you either can or you cannot. It’s a very binary proposition. The evolution of social media with live broadcasting, such as Facebook Live, means that the entire developer ecosystem says that if the capabilities are there, users want to have it.
When you put all of this together, you get to the same conclusion that we got to, and I think that forms the key basis of our announcements this year. Mission one has been to get 5G launched, and get all the flagships supporting 5G. We have our flagship modem, and we have our second generation 5G that we will show at our Tech Summit later this year, and we’re going to impress you! But then that still isn’t enough – we need to scale 5G, and we need to scale it right now. The transition is going to be faster than we’ve seen with 4G, and that’s why you’ll see our 7-series and 6-series with 5G and we’ll keep going.
IC: Currently we’re seeing a mix of discrete 5G solutions and integrated 5G solutions, whether it’s in a smartphone or other devices. There has been some commentary regarding performance in both methods, such that some discrete options can offer 2x the bandwidth of an integrated solution. What is Qualcomm’s approach here?
CA: You have to think about 5G a little differently to 4G. I won’t comment on our competitors, as they’ll do what they want to do, but I can tell you that 5G gives you the flexibility to have differences in the performance as you design the modem. Despite this, there is one very important thing on 5G is average speed – if you remember when Qualcomm pioneered Gigabit LTE or even 2 Gigabit LTE, you had a significant improvement in peak speeds, but the average speeds don’t improve at the same rate. It’s very different with 5G – with 5G the average data rates go up and, what you’re going to see as we start moving our modems onto our 7-series chipsets is that we’re not going to compromise, average data rates aren’t going to be compromised, and latencies aren’t going to be compromised. You can still have different choices, as you’ll see from our portfolio, we’ll still have full support for millimeter wave, and full support for Sub 6 GHz. We are going to unveil all the details of our modem in the 7-series chipsets at our Tech Summit. But we have a plan, and you’ll see a pattern.
5G For Both mmWave and Sub 6 GHz
IC: With different areas of the world starting with mmWave or Sub 6 GHz, and slowly transitioning to support both, what difficulties are there in supporting both in mobile devices?
CA: The fact that we have had these two elements of 5G starting off differently in different areas has been a mistake. It has played out in the marketing strategies of certain companies, especially when you talk about millimeter wave support. Some companies didn’t have that solution, or focused on Sub 6 GHz first, and so this whole NSA/SA separation occurred and some of the early hardware was labeled as NSA, as SA, as mmWave, as Sub 6 GHz and so on. 5G has been designed to have all of this! So in the end everyone will support all of this. It is almost as crazy as what we saw in the early days of 4G, with TDD and FDD LTE. It’s almost that crazy.
What you’re going to see is millimeter wave and Sub 6 GHz deployed in every geographical region. In the United States we deployed millimeter wave, and in Korea they went Sub 6 GHz first then millimeter wave is coming in 2020. In speaking with Korea Telecom, some of the Korean industry applications, for example from Hyundai, is that the amount of data coming out of machines in the production lines are of the order of multiple terabytes per day. With that you either need a fixed connection, which could be expensive, or you manage an over-the-air connection to give you flexibility, but you cannot do it without millimeter wave. It’s the same with Japan, they will deploy millimeter wave in 2020. For Europe we have it licensed or in testing at sites in Italy, the UK, Germany, and others. So it’s fair to say that when you get to the end of 2020, or even during the second half of 2020, you’re going to see Sub 6 GHz and millimeter wave both deployed where 5G is deployed.
I want to go back to comment on NSA/SA. Millimeter wave is a lot more complex than Sub 6 GHz, because you require densification of the network. With that in mind, it is natural to see it get deployed in the United States first, because that was the first region that they made use of 5 GHz on LAA. The deployment of LAA caused the operators to identify suitable cell sites, and the same sites can be used to deploy millimeter wave. That’s why part of the conversation you’ll see in the USA, and in Germany, will be around having access to traffic lights. Because the hard part of deployment is just identifying places for cell sites, this is what makes millimeter wave more difficult to deploy. Sub 6 GHz is easy, because we can put upgrades into existing 4G sites.
But at the end of the day, how the 5G network is deployed will revolve around dynamic spectrum sharing. We have the low band, as low as 800 MHz or 600 MHz, and then moving up to 1.8-1.9 GHz to 3.5 GHz. This is what we’re going to see in 2020, with the reform of dynamic spectrum sharing, and you will see Sub 6 GHz with hotspots of millimeter wave. I also have a view that industrial use cases, because of the performance and latency requirements, will want millimeter wave as a mandatory requirement. It’s fascinating to watch.
It is worth noting that once you start building 5G, coverage will grow, as with any other generation of wireless technology. Coverage isn’t everywhere immediately. With a design where you keep dual connectivity with 5G and LTE, so if you lose 5G the connectivity with LTE is still there. It has the highest level of reliability for connectivity. So every operator, including China, when they started services, they started with NSA, then as they built out the coverage they moved to SA but at the same time with private deployments you have your own SA core. So SA and NSA all happened at the same time, but for some reason it became a distinction about what version of 5G people had, and it became a mess. We’re going to see Sub 6 GHz and millimeter wave both in every single deployment.
IC: As we move to 2020, do you feel support for both Sub 6 GHz and mmWave is going to be required, even for mid-tier devices?
CA: It all comes back to the question of binary services: you need the hardware to enable the services. Right now we’re still in that early phase when many people are asking if they need that much speed, or that low latency. That question will disappear when the services start to change. But the other way to think about it is that it will take longer for mmWave to get deployed, so you may have a transition when in some cases mmWave isn’t going to be available. But as soon as you build coverage, people will see these binary effects.
IC: One limitation of mmWave is the antenna design. Qualcomm has been very vocal about its range of antennas and RF front ends. Can you speak to recent improvements and progressions on this front?
CA: One thing you’re going to see us talking more and more about is expanded features. We did announce an expanded feature set for our X55 modem, and you’re going to see more at our Tech Summit. At that event we’re going to be talking about something called Smart Transmit, and we have been proving this difficult problem despite the complexity of 5G, despite the complexity of the antenna, despite the complexity of multi-user MIMO. You have to start thinking at the system level and take advantage not only of digital signaling but also analogue signaling in how you design it, and Smart Transmit is a very clear result of this. If you have the time, you don’t have to take Qualcomm’s word for it – I highly encourage people to go check out the Samsung Note 10 5G FCC filings as they’re public and while it doesn’t say Smart Transmit on the web page, and it wasn’t launched with Smart Transmit in the FCC filings. But in those notes, they talk about the technology, how Qualcomm was able to support Smart Transmit without the ability of external sensors to deal with proximity detection, how Qualcomm will deal with power management, thermal management, and all this complexity.
AK: With Smart Transmit you cannot talk about 5G without having an end-to-end modem and antenna solution. It’s impossible otherwise. Anyone who is claiming Smart Transmit without this doesn’t understand the need for the integrated system development. The only way to understand is if you have all the modem technology, can follow 3GPP specifications, and you drive the specifications. You have to make sure the front-end of your RF solution, and your antenna, is all in line to make 5G great, otherwise it doesn’t happen.
CA: One of the things you probably heard about in the early deployments of mmWave was the thermal issues – there was a suite of features that we implemented, but it took time for the OEMs to use them. But even when you think of a mmWave antenna array, how you can have different power levels om different antenna and how the complexity is so big, that’s the reason I think we’re going to redefine how we talk about these things. There are going to be features that people will come to expect because that’s how you think about the system as a whole. That’s just the reality of 5G as it’s a more complex RF environment.
Now we deal with an enormous amount of skepticism from many analysts, that we’ll never be able to succeed in the front-end RF business because of mature players such as Skyworks, Qorvo, Murata, and Avago. They said that you (us, Qualcomm) will not be able to do this. We have come out with a platform, and out of the 150 designs using Qualcomm 5G modems, all 150 with no exceptions are using our front-end RF. This is for both mmWave and for Sub 6 GHz. This is not a coincidence – if you look at the performance comparisons, we’ve proved the point of what we have been saying: this is a different ballgame to 3G and 4G.
IC: Can you summarize the upcoming Qualcomm Tech Summit?
CA: You will see one of the most significant upgrades in premium tier platforms and what you’ll see is how we create the new benchmark in performance for our 5G modem strategy.
Many thanks to Cristiano and Alex for their time. Qualcomm’s Tech Summit is taking place December 3-5th, and we’ll be there with the latest news.