OnQ Blog

Enabling the rise of the smartphone: Chronicling the developmental history at Qualcomm

An engineer looks back at Qualcomm's essential role in groundbreaking innovations, key technology developments, and bold integration decisions in creating today’s smartphone.

Dec 9, 2020

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Smartphones are an amazing technical achievement. It’s incredible how far they have progressed over a relatively short period of time. Today, you can capture high-quality photos and 8K videos, play console-quality games, and connect to the internet at multi-gigabit cellular data rates on a sleek device that fits in your pocket and lasts all day. The first cellphones could make low-quality voice calls and… well, that’s about it. Having been at Qualcomm for more than 29 years, I’ve worked on and lived through the tremendous advancement in both cellular and multimedia technologies. In this blog post, I’m going to provide a historical perspective on how the capabilities of these devices evolved and explain the critical role that Qualcomm played in this evolution. Be sure to register for my webinar for a more complete story.

Advancing cellular capabilities through foundational research and bold decisions

In 1983, the first generation (1G) cellular phones appeared based on an analog system called AMPS, which had limited user capacity due to inefficient use of spectrum. For 2G, Qualcomm proposed Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA), a spread-spectrum technology that offered much higher capacity, as a better digital alternative to Time-Division Multiple Access (TDMA). It was a bold proposal since the industry was already moving down the path toward TDMA. Many skeptics did not believe that CDMA would work, or they believed that it was too complex for practical implementation.

We were forced to go it alone to prove that CDMA would work. That meant building the entire cellular system, including the chips, phones, and base stations. Our engineers figured out how to address many big challenges along the way, finding solutions to the near-far power problem, and designing effective receivers to deal with multipath fading. 

On November 7, 1989, we held the seminal CDMA demo in San Diego, demonstrating soft-handoff between two cell sites. It proved that CDMA worked, convinced some critics, and started to shift the industry sentiment more positively toward CDMA. Years later, we received an IEEE Milestone Award commemorating this important milestone in our work developing CDMA for cellular. CDMA was eventually standardized and commercially deployed for 2G networks, and Qualcomm has been a leader in the technology development for each cellular G transition since.

At a time when circuit-switched dial-up modems over the telephone line was the standard method for PCs to gain access to data networks, Qualcomm proposed that the next generation cellular data system should evolve to a packet-switched approach using the TCP-IP stack. This enabled the cellphone to act as an internet client, allowing it to take full advantage of internet protocols and opening possibilities for optimizing efficiency of data delivery. To that end, Qualcomm designed a CDMA system optimized for packet data that was originally called High Data Rate (HDR) but was renamed to Evolution – Data Optimized (EV-DO) after standardization. Several of the EV-DO concepts served as a foundation for 3G/4G technologies. For 5G also, our wireless inventions are foundational to making it a reality. From the digitalization of mobile communications to data-rich 3G wireless standards to the powerful 5G networks, we have been a key innovator and contributor.

As cellular technology has advanced to provide tremendous increases in capabilities, people often wonder how phones have been able to maintain sleek designs and offer long battery life. It’s part innovation and part Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that fit into the same area on a chip will double approximately every two years. The ability to regularly shrink transistors along with many fundamental innovations in cellular technologies has enabled our phones to now reach gigabit per second speeds — and add much more functionality.

Making the smartphone “smart” through integrated functionality

The trend predicted by Moore’s Law continued to hold steady, opening the opportunity for phones to do more. Just as we could use more transistors for cellular modem improvements to enhance wireless communication, we also saw the opportunity to integrate more functionality into the chipset to enhance user experiences, such as creating and consuming richer media. It was the start of the application processor age that saw the rapid growth of new experiences made possible on a phone instead of requiring separate devices.

In 2000, we integrated audio capability into our mobile station modem (MSM), MSM3300, to enable MP3 playback on the phone rather than requiring a dedicated audio MP3 device. On that same chip we also integrated Bluetooth to enable low-power wireless connections to peripherals and integrated GPS to enable location-based services.

In 2002, we integrated video encoding and decoding capability into MSM6100 to support video capture, video playback, and video telephony. For still images, it was natural to integrate the JPEG codec, but it was less clear whether to integrate the image signal processor (ISP) since it was already part of the camera module and required a lot of image processing know how. Against industry norms in 2002, we decided to integrate and were first to have an integrated camera ISP inside a mobile chip. The first ISP design was software based but the follow-on designs were hardware based to be more power efficient and support higher resolution camera sensors.

In 2002, we also started work on 3D graphics so phones could play video games and have accelerated graphical user interfaces. Similar to the ISP, we started with a software-based solution but evolved to a hardware-based design to improve performance and power efficiency. It was these early graphics rendering designs that showed the ecosystem, especially developers, that the phone could be a viable platform for developing games.

In 2004, we launched MSM6550, which was our first chip stressing multimedia capability with dedicated hardware for camera ISP, video codecs, and graphics processing. Our bet to integrate the ISP really paid off as the whole industry began to shift toward bare sensor camera modules with the image processing moved to the system-on-a-chip (SoC). We also developed a complete phone reference design to show off these new multimedia capabilities, including a 2 MP camera, dual displays, stereo speakers, and gaming controls.

Example images captured from our first hardware-based ISP in 2005.

In 2005, we integrated a second CPU into MSM7500 to run a 3rd party operating system, such as Windows Mobile, which was becoming needed to manage all the new applications and concurrencies.  The original CPU continued to handle the modem processing while the second CPU focused on the applications. This change in architecture to separate the modem processing from the application processing was an important milestone, and the industry has since continued in this same direction. In 2007, we integrated the first 1 GHz ARM-based CPU into MSM8650 as the need for increased processing was becoming apparent for upcoming use cases like web browsing.

The phone design and form factor really started to change around 2008 and 2009 from flip phones with small screens to phones with larger displays, higher resolution, and pullout QWERTY keyboards. Our chips continued to increase capabilities year after year as the desire for bigger screens, higher resolutions, and higher frame rates drove the need for more graphics, camera, video, and display processing. We also continued to integrate additional processing engines for specialized tasks, like the integration of the sensors processor in 2011.

In 2012, we introduced our first Qualcomm Snapdragon branded processor, which included a quad-core CPU, programmable GPU shader core, dual-camera support, and 4K video capability. Around this time, phone form factors and designs were starting to resemble the smartphones of today. Camera quality was becoming a crucial feature as smartphones began to replace discrete point-and-shoot cameras, and our support of dual camera allowed new capabilities such as instant autofocus, bokeh effects, improved HDR, and zoom. Every year since, our Snapdragon 800 series introduces enhanced capabilities across technologies, everything from camera and graphics to AI and extended reality, as our engineers continue to innovate.

Snapdragon 800 series year over year innovation and enhancement.

The contrast between the cellphones of 1995 and today’s smartphone is astounding. Modern smartphones are sleek, have virtually no bezel, and support advanced capabilities like voice UI, 8k video, up to 5 cameras, life-like graphics, and much more.

Tremendous improvement in phone capabilities from 1995 to 2020 thanks to engineering innovation and Moore’s Law.

Looking back, I’m still amazed at how far we have come thanks to a bold vision for the future, innovative engineering, continuous integration enabled by Moore’s Law, and the entire smartphone ecosystem pushing the boundaries of technology.


Qualcomm Snapdragon is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.


Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Qualcomm Incorporated or its subsidiaries ("Qualcomm"). Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Qualcomm or any other party. This site may also provide links or references to non-Qualcomm sites and resources. Qualcomm makes no representations, warranties, or other commitments whatsoever about any non-Qualcomm sites or third-party resources that may be referenced, accessible from, or linked to this site.

Gil Sih

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