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30 June 2017

Qualcomm unveils fingerprint auth-tech, with Geely auto win and Wear 1200

It’s been a tricky week for Qualcomm, after losing its motion to dismiss complaints leveled at it by the FTC in the US, regarding its patent licensing case. Judge Lucy Koh, who frequently oversaw the Apple-Samsung disputes, has ruled that the case must go to trial – noting that “the court finds that the FTC has adequately alleged that, under the circumstances presented here, Qualcomm violated a duty to deal in refusing to license its FRAND-encumbered SEPs to its modem chip competitors.”

There are also allegations that Qualcomm offered lower licensing costs in exchange for an exclusive supply deal, and notably, the fallout has occurred after Apple began using Intel baseband chips in some of its iPhones. Qualcomm has fired back, saying that Apple has mischaracterized its agreements.

Apple itself has filed suit against Qualcomm, alleging that the excessive patent fees charged by Qualcomm have amounted to $1bn – with Qualcomm apparently forcing Apple to license patents that were not included in iPhone designs, thanks to a per-phone license. Apple has stopped paying these royalties, and encouraged partners to do the same, apparently knocking $500m out of Qualcomm’s quarterly results.

Apple has accused Qualcomm of having “built its business on older, legacy standards, but it reinforces its dominance through exclusionary tactics and excessive royalties. Despite being just one of over a dozen companies that contributed to basic cellular standards, Qualcomm insists on charging Apple at least five times more in payments than all the other cellular patent licensors we have agreements with combined.”

But while those cases rumble on, Qualcomm is still pressing ahead with new designs, and has released a swathe of new silicon this week – ranging from automotive chips to a new wearable-focused SoC. In its eyes, Qualcomm is maintaining its position as the “de facto R&D arm of the industry,” as Qualcomm’s EVP and general counsel, Don Rosenberg, described the company, in his response to the most recent Apple decision.

Using MWC Shanghai as the launch-platform, the first of the newly unveiled designs is the Snapdragon Wear 1200 SoC, which now supports both LTE-M (formerly LTE Cat-M1, sometimes as LTE eMTC or LTE IoT) and NB-IoT (Cat-M2). The platform is designed as a complement to the Wear 1100 and Wear 2100 SoCs, and is pitched as suited for wearables like activity trackers and elderly monitors.

Housed in a 79mm2 package, Qualcomm says the design allows ultra-low power operation – pretty key for these sorts of IoT-focused applications. It supports a range of external sensor hub options, as well as the major GNSS options (GPS, GLONASS. Galileo, and BeiDou). In addition, Qualcomm says its cloud-based location services (using WiFi and cellular footprints to determine a device’s location).

Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs) Borqs and Quanta are launch partners, and have designed reference platforms based on the Snapdragon Wear 1200 – covering child, elderly, enterprise, and fitness wearables. The pair say that the designs are ready-to-commercialize, which should mean pretty swift go-to-market times for developers.

To this end, Qualcomm has also announced that since its entrance into the wearables space three years ago, there are now over 150 wearable products in the market using Qualcomm designs, and that it holds over 80% share for Android Wear smartwatches (both launched, and announced). Also announced was the Xiaotiancai Z3 children’s smartwatch, which uses the Snapdragon Wear 2100.

Qualcomm also announced another notable product win, with Chinese automaker Geely (the owner of Volvo) had picked the Snapdragon 820Am to power the next generation of its in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) platforms in Geely vehicles. Qualcomm says that the Geely systems will be the first in the world to use an integrated 4G LTE modem, thanks to the 820Am’s X12 modem – and are expected to launch in 2020. Geely already uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon LTE modems for telematics apps.

Geely notes that it expects to use Snapdragon in upcoming generations of its iNTEC platform, which includes the G-Netlink system for remote interactions between a car’s owner and the vehicle, and G-Pilot, Geely’s ADAS and autonomous driving platform.

“China is emerging as a source of automotive innovation, not only benefiting Chinese customers but also the rest of the world, by quickly adopting and commercializing leading-edge car technology,” said Patrick Little, SVP and GM for Automotive, at Qualcomm Technologies. “We are pleased to work with Geely and the Chinese automotive ecosystem to help define the future of connected car experiences and use our industry-leading technologies to accelerate its realization.”

The final two announcements were more focused on Qualcomm’s core smartphone markets. Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon 450 SoC, a processing platform aimed at the mid-tier market, and the first to use a new 14nm FinFET casting process – which Qualcomm says adds significant improvements to battery life and compute power.

The octacore design houses an ARM Cortex A53 CPU and Qualcomm’s Adreno 506 GPU, which apparently both provide a 25% performance improvement compared to the Snapdragon 435. The battery life claims have gone up by 4-hours, the more efficient GPU providing a claimed 30% power consumption while gaming. Connectivity is provided by the X9 LTE modem, with 802.11ac MU-MIMO available  too, and USB 3.0 – the first appearance of the protocol in the 400-series.

The last announcement is perhaps the most interesting, as it looks like a way to provide buttonless front panels for smartphones. The new ultrasonic Qualcomm Fingerprint Sensors claim to be able to scan through displays, thick glass, and metal, with support for underwater operation, as well as heartbeat and blood flow detection.

The new range houses different display, glass, and metal sensors, and Qualcomm says it is the first commercially announced ultrasonic heart and blood monitoring sensor for use in mobile authentication. While these sensors will probably be used in health-focused applications, Qualcomm is pretty focused on using them to enable new form factors and biometric authentication.

The design opens doors for virtualized home buttons on smartphones, which would still support fingerprint scanning thanks to the through-display operation that Qualcomm is pitching. The new tech has been designed for the Snapdragon 630 and 660 platforms, but will work with future implementations too. The glass and metal sensors are available now, with Qualcomm expecting them to appear in devices in H1 2018. The display sensor will be evaluating with OEMs in Q4 2018. Vivo’s Xplay 6 was the demonstration phone at MWC Shanghai.