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Qualcomm's new CEO: Building the invisible tech that changes the world
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Qualcomm's new CEO: Building the invisible tech that changes the world

An interview with incoming Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon

You may not be familiar with Qualcomm's products, but they've certainly improved your life. The San Diego company is known for designing semiconductors and wireless telecommunications products, developing the essential processors and transceivers that allow everything from your smartphone, TV, laptop and car to connect.

That will accelerate with 5G, which will allow billions of new devices to be linked instantly. This will reshape the business world, but also touch everyday life in ways we are just beginning to see.

On July 1, Qualcomm gets a new CEO — company veteran Cristiano Amon, their current president. He takes over from Steve Mollenkopf, who's retiring. We recently caught up with Amon to get a sense of where the company is heading.

Qualcomm's products are pervasive, but not apparent to most of us. How would you describe Qualcomm?

Qualcomm is one of those companies that is a big part of everybody's lives, but nobody talks about. We focus on the technology that drives the connectivity which links everyone and everything. First, it was with the radio technology CDMA and digital cellular that allowed everyone to be connected with a cell phone. The next phase was 3G, which connected the cell phone to the internet. Then we helped bring broadband to your phone with 4G. You had a computer in the palm of your hand. That changed the world. Now we're all about 5G and connecting everything to the cloud — not just people, but everything. Billions of devices.

5G is such a big part of your future. What are the near-term consumer use cases?

We compare 5G to electricity. In the beginning, people might not have known what electricity was good for. Now it's an essential part of life. You always assume it's going to be there. That's how we think about 5G and its role in connecting everything to the cloud. It will transform how we communicate. You'll be connected 100% of the time to the cloud, and have unlimited data and unlimited speeds. Video will become essential. The ease of receiving it will be akin to the way the world of music was transformed by 4G. Suddenly, you could get it anywhere. 5G will do the same for high-definition video.

What's an example of how that might play out?

Augmented-reality glasses will be a great computing platform with 5G. When you're walking around with them on you'll be able to instantly pull insight from the world around you, ranging from social media platforms to whatever you're looking at.

What does that look like on the enterprise side?

We'll see many connected edge devices, pulling in an immense amount of data, collecting and processing it. Machine learning will pull out insights at an unprecedented rate, which will drive the next industrial revolution. For example: We will see significant growth of smart factories and distributed workloads that are orchestrated in the cloud. Machines will photograph items that are being produced and compare them to templates to see if they're assembled correctly. Factory floors will be reconfigured quickly without the need to move hardwired connections. Cameras will be pointed at shelves to see if they need replenishing. The speed of networking and the convenience of the cloud will assist in ensuring work is aligned, whether you're making chocolates or building cars.

What is your vision for the next decade as you take the role of CEO at Qualcomm?

The name Qualcomm is a shortened form of "quality communications," and we want to see that spread across virtually all industries. That's why we're diversifying. There is widespread demand for Qualcomm technology: It's no longer unique to mobile. Qualcomm has an incredible opportunity to provide the technology that allows a smart, intelligent edge to be connected. We're already on our way to getting that done.

How will the chip shortages affect the speed at which some of these ideas play out?

Semiconductors are hidden, but they're essential. The shortage highlights this. The pandemic showed us just how important connectivity is for us to stay productive and allow companies to continue to function.

For us, scale helps in meeting this challenge. We can design technology across multiple sources and make investments with our partners in capacity builds. Regarding the general chip shortage — by the end of the year we expect to see improvements.

How did Qualcomm weather the past year?

We saw an incredible acceleration across all parts of our business, even with the majority of our employees working from home. Our workforce remained connected and committed to our labs. In fact, we saw a 60% increase in fundamental 5G inventions.

The world and the enterprise were transformed in 2020 and we were transformed as well. We're not leaving those lessons behind. We'll take what we learned, including the way the home can become part of the enterprise, which creates an incredible opportunity for 5G to upgrade broadband for the home and for the PC.

Most importantly, we saw the quickening of the digital transformation of the enterprise. We're a part of that and we're going to help lead it.

You've been with Qualcomm for more than 25 years. Now you lead the company. How does this moment feel for you?

It's an incredible privilege. I was born and raised in Brazil and went to engineering school there. So it's always been great to work for a company full of great engineers. Now I help to continue that story and lead people who have a common vision. This is a wonderful opportunity but also very humbling.

Qualcomm will always be the company setting the pace of innovation in wireless and our partnerships are essential. I look forward to building great relationships with other companies across other industries. Together, I believe we can change the world.