Almost no one wanted a camera in their cell phone 14 or 15 years ago. People just wanted to make calls.

Cellular data plans were often seen as expensive gimmicks. Don’t believe me? Check out this blog thread from December 2006, just before the skeptics started coming around.

Smart devices that take pictures and connect to the internet now seem inevitable. But the technological innovations required to make them happen were enormous, involved entire industries, and took decades of work. And that work was risky. It’s a huge gamble to make bets on technology that people don’t know they want yet. You know what they say about pioneers — that they’re the ones with arrows in their backs.

The thing about innovation is that it doesn’t generally happen in the most straightforward way. The path forward can be murky. You have to have the vision to see issues that industries are facing — and the nimbleness to overcome difficulties. At Qualcomm, they march in a certain direction, but see it more as a compass than a fixed path, because they understand that there are going to hit obstacles.

One example: Way back in the ’80s, it was clear to them that a lot of doors would open if they could integrate wireless data modems into cellphones. CDMA, the cellular standard on which today’s 3G networks are based, was born during some of Qualcomm’s earliest brainstorms.

But CDMA had its fair share of detractors. They were convinced it couldn’t be done; or if it could, their engineers were going about it all wrong. Some even said CDMA violated the laws of physics (which wasn’t true), or that it needed to be able to support 10 times more capacity (which was true).

But something like a global wireless data network is only impossible until someone creates it, and Qualcomm wanted to be that someone. So they set out to solve CDMA’s capacity challenge — and by doing so connected the cellphone to the internet. Their early ideas about what mobile internet connectivity could become led to their concept of the smartphone as the remote control for our lives.

It was a vision that turned out to be true. Their connectivity technology continues to drive the industry, and is leading the way to 5G. But as they pursued it, they were also pulled into all kinds of seemingly impossible innovations in computing, graphics, and multimedia.

Qualcomm continues to focus on big, industry-sized challenges — infrastructure-level opportunities that often involve the very personal devices we use every day. They look at our phones, tablets, and wearables and imagine what else they can do with them. At the same time, they look at global data networks and wonder what more they can do with them. They think, they innovate, and they come up with solutions that drive mobile industries forward.

You’ll see them at the center of emerging industries as well as behind the screens of the devices you love. And it’s not just smartphones, but robotics, gaming, VR, drones, mobile security, public Wi-Fi, and even artificial intelligence and cognitive technologies.

Now they’re in the middle of another technological shift — one that’s being questioned and debated just like those early camera phones and data plans. All kinds of devices, cars, household appliances, and wearables are getting smarter with the help of an onboard computer processor and modem. They can talk to each other, crunch data, and be more helpful to us, the users.

It's called the Internet of Things (IoT), and from a consumer standpoint, it’s still in its early stages. Of course there are skeptics and critics. And that’s fair.

I’ll be honest: When they first started developing modems and mobile chipsets back in the ’80s, it wasn’t so they could be used in air conditioning units.

And yet, it turns out a smart air conditioner has all kinds of benefits, in terms of household comfort and power efficiency. Put 40 million of them in China over the next four years, and we’ll see real power grid improvements and a reduction in carbon emissions. All because of a little chip that was developed for cellphones. Qualcomm didn’t set out to improve China’s power grid, but that’s an example of how innovation tends to work.

So here’s a new vision: In the coming years Qualcomm will connect the next billion devices — by way of the IoT. And those devices/things will be connected using versatile new 5G technologies that can scale and adapt to billions of new situations. At times 5G will be called upon to deliver incredible bandwidth. In other situations, 5G will be called upon to operate at extremely low-power or make low-latency connections.

Sound farfetched? They don’t think so. When the skeptics say something can’t be done, let’s remember to add “right now.” Qualcomm can bring the future forward faster as long as they keep asking questions and challenging the “impossible."


Also published on Medium.