Urban legend it may be, but one wily investor living in San Diego, California is said to drive a car with the licence plate ‘QC Rocks’, in tribute to Qualcomm, the mobile communications company that provided much of his fortune.
Qualcomm, whose shares were one of the star performers of the dot-com boom, is betting that investment in its software technology Brew will produce dividends that are as great, both for the company itself and its shareholders, and for the operators and handset makers that back it. And Europe is increasingly the focus of its plans.
Developed first as a software deployment technology, Brew in effect provides a middleware or hardware abstraction layer that lets authors create applications and run them on a variety of handsets. Its origins – as a way to help Qualcomm update software to its mobile handsets after sale – means that Brew is optimised for over-the-air downloads and supports lean applications.
Qualcomm has since sold off its handset operations, focusing instead largely on software and chipsets for 3G devices. In the European market, it is positioning Brew as an alternative to Sun Microsystems’ Java for downloads and to the Symbian operating system for heavier-weight applications.
Qualcomm certainly has the track record to support this: the company announced at its recent Brew developer conference that consumers had downloaded 130 million applications. And the company has attracted a range of enterprise-focused developers to its platform, providing utilities such as email, instant messaging, medical monitoring and translation.
But although Brew is firmly established in North America and Asia, through networks such as Verizon and KDDI, its footprint in Europe is small with just two operators, in Romania and Israel, running Brew-compatible hardware.
Qualcomm expects this to change, as European networks move over to 3G technology. Many makers of 3G handsets use Qualcomm chipsets, and these chipsets come with Brew support built in. For Qualcomm, the challenge is to persuade networks – especially the pan-European operators Vodafone and Orange – to turn on Brew.
If they do so, the technology offers some advantages to enterprises deploying applications to mobile phones. One is that, whereas Symbian is a feature of high-end phones and PDA-style devices, some operators have shipped Brew in both high-end and low-cost handsets. According to Qualcomm, the platform in markets such as Japan is not limited to the top 10% of phones that would equate to the smartphone market.
Development and support costs, Qualcomm argues, should also be lower than for competing environments. Unlike Java, there is no direct path to migrate Brew applications to desktop PCs or PDAs, but Qualcomm engineers, and third-party developers, maintain that developing for mobile handsets is such a specialised business that few companies would want to tackle it in-house.
Dr Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm’s global president, says that the advantage of Brew lies in compatibility between phones, rather than between phones and other devices. “Qchat, our push-to-talk technology, is just an application so any Brew phone can use it,” he says. “On an optimised phone you would have a talk button and far field speaker, for Walkie Talkie style operation, but it will work on phones without that.”
Jacobs says that Brew will also enable enterprises to maintain private catalogues of applications available for over-the-air downloads for staff with 3G phones.
The obstacle facing Qualcomm and the Brew community is not the technical capabilities of the system, nor its suitability for enterprise applications – Brew is based in any case on the industry standard C++ programming language, and Brew applications can run on Microsoft-based Smartphones and Symbian. The challenge is to persuade operators to deploy Brew, especially when they have alternatives developed specifically for GPRS, around WAP and Java: businesses might want to run Brew applications, especially if they use them in North America or Asia, but their preferred European operator may not support the technology.
“We might see the tier three or tier four, or even the main challenger networks in Europe, introduce Brew as a differentiator,” says Paolo Pescatore, an IDC analyst. “It allows operators to draw on a standard, but still differentiate themselves.” This might not result in large-scale enterprise deployments, as big companies tend to work with the top one or two operators in their market.
“Qualcomm realises that this is a long haul,” says Pescatore. “But their incremental costs are low, and they have good stories to tell, such as [operators] KDDI in Japan and Vivo in Brazil.” In those markets, Brew has helped to drive innovation in data services, and brought down costs. If such a scenario were to replay in Europe, it will ultimately be to the benefit of enterprises, as well as operators.