Talking Cars, Chips and PCs with Qualcomm’s Akash Palkhiwala

There’s no doubt this is shaping up to be a good year for Qualcomm. Its Snapdragon chips continue to dominate the premium smartphone market, and the company seems to have finally cracked the PC space after a few false starts.

This week, I sat down at MWC Shanghai with Akash Palkhiwala, Qualcomm’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer, to talk about recent developments and the company’s plans for the future.

Akash started our conversation by pointing out that silicon for smartphones has to cover several areas of technology — cellular connections, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cameras, displays and, more recently, AI processing. The demands of these multiple areas have given Qualcomm a heritage of innovation and created a portfolio of products that have the potential to transform other industries.

Qualcomm aims to diversify this expertise into other markets, including automotive, extended reality (XR) devices, the industrial sector and, most significantly, the PC market. As my colleague Geoff Blaber discusses here, Qualcomm’s recent entry and its future success in the PC market are predicated on its chips’ ability to power AI features locally on PCs.

Akash said that local processing meant stronger privacy and security, and lower latency. There are also benefits from being able to incorporate data from on-device sensors, and the cost benefit of performing AI processing on a local chip that may otherwise be idle, rather than in a data centre. Of course, processing AI has an impact on battery life and CPU performance, so Akash highlighted the importance of the neural processing unit (NPU) in Qualcomm’s PC chipsets.

Beyond the Snapdragon X Elite and Plus platforms initially available, Qualcomm intends to expand to mainstream tiers of the PC market. In our view, this broad support is one of the factors that put Qualcomm’s latest foray into PCs on much firmer footing than previous efforts, which centred on bringing Windows-on-Arm to a narrower set of devices.

Another factor is the “AI-first” nature of Copilot+ PCs. Generative AI is a transformative force that’s in huge demand, and Snapdragon X series chips are an integral part of bringing that force to a new generation of computing devices.

AI will reshape many of the areas powered by Snapdragon chips, so I asked Akash which ones he saw as holding the most potential. He sees the advance of AI in each area as more of a timeline than in terms of potential: Qualcomm is already transforming smartphones with AI and has proven itself in the automotive sector. He believes XR may be the next market to see significant advances, as XR devices gain AI assistants that allow users to break free of the limitations imposed by the size and displays of such devices. The combination of AI and reliable connectivity to cloud resources may prove to be a disruptive cocktail.

Before we finished, I asked Akash if he’d noted any examples of the transformative nature of generative AI. He mentioned the use of AI to improve car maintenance. A warning light on a car’s dashboard usually fails to identify the exact nature of the problem, and leaves the owner to arrange a repair. An AI model trained on the car’s repair manual could describe the fault to the driver, and then enter a dialogue to find a mechanic and book an appointment.

It’s a good example of an advance that’s relatively simple to achieve in terms of technology, but transforms the user experience for car owners, many of whom dread seeing that warning light and trying to work out the problem. We predicted a similar scenario in last year’s predictions for 2024 and beyond.

I’d like to thank Akash for taking the time to speak with me at MWC Shanghai. You can catch up on the latest news from the event here.