Qualcomm’s New Wearable SoC Could Trigger Growth in Standalone Wearables

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Qualcomm is a prominent player in the wearables semiconductor market, repurposing its smartphone Snapdragon system on a chip (SoC) for wearables, with its chipsets being used in the majority of Android and Android Wear smart watches, Tizen and LG Web OS smart watches, smart glasses, and eyewear solutions. Many of the fitness tracker devices have also been using Qualcomm’s solution. Unlike Intel, which has a targeted SoC for wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT) with Curie, until now Qualcomm has relied on its smartphone-oriented Snapdragon platform. However, that is all now changing with Qualcomm’s latest announcement about the release a wearable-specific SoC called Snapdragon Wear 2100. This is the first wearable-specific SoC from Qualcomm and will take over the mantle of the previous Snapdragon 400 and 805 chipsets that are being used for wearables, but with a 30% reduction in size, a dedicated sensor hub, and an option for a built-in cellular modem that supports 2G/3G/4G and Wi-Fi.

Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100

(Source: Qualcomm)

Wearable device vendor LG has already announced its support for the Snapdragon 2100 chipset, with plans to use the chip to launch new smart watches and other wearable devices. With Mobile World Congress coming up next week, we expect to see more announcements from wearable device makers in support of Qualcomm’s new offering. It would be interesting to see if any of the wearable vendors currently using Intel chips decide to switch to Qualcomm, especially if they are looking for cellular connectivity and standalone use cases. Qualcomm clearly has a lead in cellular modems, with 99% of smartphones shipping with a Qualcomm modem, and therefore vendors might prefer to choose Qualcomm over Intel due to their leadership in the modem space. In some ways, Intel’s Curie announcement in early 2015 put some pressure on Qualcomm to announce a dedicated SoC for wearables, and was definitely one of the most common questions from analysts that cover Qualcomm. The argument was that Qualcomm could leverage the R&D and manufacturing for Snapdragon chips that were shipping for smartphones and transfer that benefit to wearable device vendors. But now, with wearable devices scaling up in shipments over the past 12 months, Qualcomm is confident that it can offer similar advantages, but enhance some of the wearable specific requirements such as size, battery power, and connectivity in a wearable-specific SoC.

The biggest advantage, however, will come from having built-in cellular connectivity and this announcement should generate multiple design wins in standalone smart watches that are untethered from the smartphone. Until now, it has been difficult for vendors to reverse engineer smartphone modems for use in watches, while keeping a check on size and battery power. Most notably, LG had to shelve its Watch Urbane LTE Edition, citing hardware issues. The fact that LG is the first public customer for the Qualcomm Snapdragon 2100 suggests that there was pressure on Qualcomm to fix the hardware issue, and avoid losing a valued customer like LG. Also, the lack of standalone smart watches at CES 2016 suggested that wearable device vendors have been struggling with existing hardware options. That might all change with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 2100. Although the Apple Watch 2 is unlikely to have a cellular modem, I would be very surprised if Apple doesn’t release a standalone Apple Watch in 2017. By then, I expect to see almost all the smart watch vendors offering a cellular-connected smart watch. In terms of use cases, a standalone smart watch is ideal for runners who can leave their phone at home while going for a run, or for young people that like to party or attend concerts and don’t want to risk losing their smartphone, or simply as a device that remains connected without having to worry about where you left your smartphone. As an avid smart watch wearer, I am constantly frustrated at the number of times my Pebble Watch gets disconnected from my smartphone because of the limited range of Bluetooth. I have also left the house without my smartphone on occasion, having to annoyingly retrace my steps, and so having a backup phone on my wrist would not a bad option at all. And then there are the numerous watches targeted at kids and the elderly that need cellular connectivity more than any other wearable. Qualcomm’s timing for a dedicated wearable SoC with cellular connectivity couldn’t be better, as the market moves into a longer tail of use cases and larger volumes.

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