Qualcomm’s Gobi Ambitions

Qualcomm’s Gobi wireless platform, which is comprised of firmware and chips, aims to make it easy for manufacturers to put a 3G network card inside a laptop without going through multiple carrier certification programs. If widely adopted, it would give Qualcomm a foothold inside the fast-growing laptop market, and a way to move beyond its intellectual property monopoly on the aging CDMA standard.

Mike Concannon, vice president of strategic products for Qualcomm’s CDMA technologies division, said the firm will license the Gobi platform to card makers, and won’t be getting back into manufacturing. Already H-P has said it will use Gobi cards in its 2008 line of laptops. The Gobi platform will be available in March and end users could see it by June.

The Gobi modules consists of firmware, a GPS chip and a software-defined radio that is both CDMA and HSPA compliant. It can be configured to run on any compliant network with a 5-second software update, or (depending on the business arrangement struck between laptop OEMs and carriers) could be limited to certain carrier networks. One way or another, laptop makers would love to have a single, multicarrier network card from which to choose.

Built-in wireless broadband would be sweet for those of us who hate inserting and keeping track of external network cards. If laptop makers give 3G valuable space inside the laptop, it would prove that 3G as a source of wireless broadband has arrived — especially if the carriers can offer competitive data plans.

But Qualcomm’s ambitions don’t stop at 3G. “We see Gobi embedded in laptops as kind of a landing point,” says Concannon. “If Gobi is the first step in overlapping or uniting networks just as we’ve united a CDMA and HSPA network, and as we talk about HSPA Plus and LTE, then this idea of having a multifunction radio that allows the device to receive the least common denominator is kind of an important concept.”

And because wireless technology is kind of pain to embed on a laptop thanks to all the noise generated by the PC motherboard, owning the pre-optimized wireless real estate inside the laptop is an enviable position to be in. Concannon doesn’t see Qualcomm stopping with carrier technology, and mentioned digital television transmission and ultra-mobile broadband as future networking technologies that might find a home on Gobi. Perhaps WiMax too?

Of course, other players could come along with their own firmware and go through the pre-certification process with all of the major carriers, but Qualcomm has a pretty tight relationship with many of the carriers, making such an endeavor a hard slog. It also controls the CDMA intellectual property, meaning any efforts to compete would still enrich Qualcomm on some level.

But given the rancor Qualcomm has stirred in the mobile chipset and handset community, laptop OEMs might want to take a long hard look at what Gobi could mean for them down the road. Qualcomm royalties aren’t cheap.