It is early February, and in normal times, that meant companies would be gearing up for Mobile World Congress with a slew of press releases and product releases. The fact that MWC has been delayed this year did not stop Qualcomm from putting out some fairly impressive news. The company announced a new family of Snapdragon processors (an important update to a topic which has been on our minds lately) and a set of new Radio Frequency (RF) chips. The RF products are fairly minor commercially but they are an important harbinger of big changes coming to this corner of the market.
RF chips straddle the divide between real-world physical signals, in this case radio waves, and the digital components of the phone which do all the complex math for decoding signals into kitten memes and dancing TikToks on your phone. They are crucial for the operation of mobile phones, but are fairly difficult to build. The difficulty stems from the fact that RF products are not a single chip, they are modules filled with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of discrete components. The significance of yesterday’s announcements was that Qualcomm appears to be tying the performance of the RF components much more tightly to the digital components.
At heart, RF products are basically translators – taking analog signals (radio waves) and translating them into digital 1’s and 0’s. This is about the laws of physics more than the Moore’s Law. Historically, the RF suppliers have specialized in the analog side of the equation, and left the digital side to companies like Qualcomm who build the digital chips. Crucially, the Holy Grail of RF for years has been to find ways to use the digital components to help the RF chips do a better job of translation. Qualcomm appears to have actually captured, or least grasped, that Grail.
The telling product is the QET1700, a wideband envelope tracker. There is no simple way to explain what an envelope tracker does (this is draft seven of this paragraph), but it basically adjusts the phone’s power levels to best accommodate the RF signal. The easiest analogy is to think of the volume level on your headphones. When Spotify transitions from Bach’s Flute Sonata in B to Metallica’s Enter the Sandman the envelope tracker in this belabored analogy lowers the volume so that you can still capture the beauty of James Hetfield’s guitar chords without blowing out your headphones. There are ways to do this with entirely analog circuitry, but using a phone’s compute power allows for less circuitry and thus a smaller, more power efficient phone.
Qualcomm actually claims their tuning products use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to accomplish a 30% improvement in battery life. We are hugely skeptical of companies using the term ‘AI’ in their press releases, and Qualcomm is not entirely clear what they mean by this, but the point is that the company can credibly claim to use improved software techniques in their products now.
This is a minor product (it probably sells for a $1) and a 30% improvement in power for this one part of the phone is tiny when compared to the overall power budget of a device. That being said, it is hard to overstate the significance of this capability. For one thing, Qualcomm is likely just getting started. Their are many other ways they can make better use of a phone’s compute to improve RF performance. Envelope tracking is just an easy starting point. For another, none of Qualcomm’s RF competitors can match this. As noted above, the traditional vendors just lack much in the way digital capabilities. More to the point, to integrate with a phone’s digital circuits would require them to partner with providers of those digital circuits. Since Qualcomm is the one building those, the legacy RF makers are unlikely to get any support or even access to the digital side of the device. Not merely a flesh wound, competitively speaking.
Qualcomm has been slogging away at RF for more than a decade. We noted last year that since ~2019, they finally turned the corner and started producing real RF products. They have even started breaking the RF segment out in their earnings reports. Investors frequently ask us what has changed, and the mundane reality is that Qualcomm rationalized the management structure of their RF unit, after years of a very confused organization chart. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. So for several years Qualcomm has already been a real competitor in RF, and these new products hint at how much more formidable they are likely to become in the space.