Blaber: Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 debut raises bar for rivals

Snapdragon 888
Qualcomm's decision to depart from the naming convention of recent years and jump from Snapdragon 865 — its previous flagship platform — to Snapdragon 888 has inevitably raised questions. (Qualcomm)
Geoff Blaber

Today's fifth annual Snapdragon Tech Summit may not have had the same allure of a beach-side location in Maui, Hawaii, as it has in previous years, but it did underline why Qualcomm is the industry leader in premium-tier chipsets. The launch of Snapdragon 888 once again raises the bar for rival platforms, and the breadth of industry support illustrates the company's pivotal role in delivering next-generation connectivity, graphics, computing and artificial intelligence to enable an ever-increasing range of experiences.

Qualcomm's decision to depart from the naming convention of recent years and jump from Snapdragon 865 — its previous flagship platform — to Snapdragon 888 has inevitably raised questions. There isn't a single reason for the change, but the timing of the move is logical. The new platform represents a considerable jump over the previous generation and Qualcomm wanted its name to shine a light on the upgrade. The number eight has also been synonymous with Snapdragon's premium platform for some years and has the added advantage of being seen as an auspicious number around the world. The fact that it's a symbol of luck in China undoubtedly played into the decision, particularly given the importance of its partner ecosystem in China. And who doesn't need some positivity in 2020?

Snapdragon 888 emphasizes how important the company's premium-tier platform is, not just in terms of its role in top-tier devices but also as a source of innovation for the broader portfolio. The Snapdragon 8 series has consistently launched features that are then introduced at scale to Snapdragon 7, 6 and 4 series platforms. Alex Katouzian, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm's mobile, compute, and infrastructure (MCI) business unit, highlighted this in the event's keynote presentation, stressing the role that Snapdragon 8 series plays in pushing premium experiences down the portfolio into the mass market and horizontally across categories beyond mobile including PCs, extended reality, cloud computing and fixed wireless applications.

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A great example of this is 5G. The technology was introduced in Snapdragon 855 at the event in December 2018. Much has changed in two years. According to Qualcomm, 5G networks have now been deployed in more than 40 countries by over 100 operators globally, and in 2021 the company expects 5G handset shipments to reach between 450 million and 550 million — fewer than the 600 million CCS Insight forecasts. 5G has pushed down the price curve into Snapdragon 7 and 6 series chipsets, enabling devices below $400, and despite criticism less than 12 months ago that 5G devices were too expensive. Qualcomm will also be introducing 5G into Snapdragon 4 series in early 2021.

Equally, the feature set has improved dramatically from a year ago. Snapdragon 888 introduces Qualcomm's third-generation modem-RF system with global compatibility for time- and frequency-division-duplex frequencies, millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz; a comprehensive set of RF front-end technologies to manage the RF complexity; and support for carrier aggregation, dynamic spectrum sharing and standalone 5G. This is a considerable pace of progress. Delivering all this in a single platform for a limited range of devices is difficult, but what sets Qualcomm apart is its ability to build scale with technologies and enable a raft of different options to enable maximum flexibility for its customers.

This has become increasingly apparent over the years as Qualcomm's customers have grown in size and diversity. The keynote presentation on the first day of the summit welcomed appearances from Verizon, NTT Docomo, Sony, OnePlus, and Xiaomi, with a long list of other device makers pledging support. Although it's inescapable that the competitive landscape is becoming more intense, Qualcomm's breadth of customers, diversity of solutions and pace of innovation remains unique.

Continually taking premium technologies and "waterfalling" these features into lower tiers isn't without its challenges. Doing so risks confusion, pressure on margins and unnecessary overlap if not carefully managed, particularly when considering the combined complexity of pushing features vertically as well as horizontally within the portfolio. Qualcomm has walked this tightrope to date and this has been central to its success.

The Snapdragon 888 brand gives Qualcomm leeway to make a more decisive change in the future to a system that can keep pace with an ever-increasing cadence and volume of updates, which are quickly adopted far and wide across the company's platforms. The focus of the Snapdragon Tech Summit might be on the latest flagship 8 series chip, but recent years have shown the event is much more than that. It's the blueprint for features that will become relevant for the full breadth of the business.

Geoff Blaber is vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.