PC shipments back into growth, but can connectivity make it sustainable?

PCs are often seen as the forgotten child of the technology family, though new estimates suggest there is life left in the segment.

We use laptops every day but never discuss the potential for innovation or a refreshment cycle. These are devices which are largely viewed as commoditised and a segment which has already been through its heyday, so attentions are drawn elsewhere in search of the next billion-dollar idea. But there might be life left yet.

According to estimates from Gartner, worldwide PC shipments, desktop and laptop, stood at 70.6 million units in the fourth quarter of 2019, an increase of 2.3% from the same period of 2018. Across the year, shipments were up 0.6% to 261 million units, with Lenovo and HP leading the charge.

“The PC market experienced growth for the first time since 2011, driven by vibrant business demand for Windows 10 upgrades, particularly in the US, EMEA and Japan,” said Gartner’s Mikako Kitagawa.

“We expect this growth to continue through this year even after Windows 7 support comes to an end this month, as many businesses in emerging regions such as China, Eurasia and the emerging Asia/Pacific have not yet upgraded.”

Interestingly enough, while growth is certainly encouraging the potential might well have been curtailed. According to Kitagawa, without a shortage of Intel CPU products on the market, growth may well have accelerated further beyond the numbers which Gartner is putting forward in its estimates. 2012 was the last time the PC segment experienced a full annual cycle of growth.

These numbers are certainly encouraging, but one has to ask whether this could be translated into sustained growth. Perhaps the connectivity industry is where we should be looking to answer this question.

One thing which has always been missed from laptops is embedded connectivity. Users has become accustomed to signing onto a Wifi connection or tethering a smartphone, but with almost everything and anything having a SIM placed in it nowadays, the laptop seems like one of the most obvious places to do so.

Few people would log onto a laptop today without connecting to the internet, so it begs the question as to why 4G connectivity is not commonplace within these devices today. There may be a couple of reasons:

  • Wifi was a better solution
  • Data was too expensive
  • Data tariffs were not designed in this manner
  • Industry was focused elsewhere
  • Customer demand was not present

There is unlikely to be any one reason, more of a blend of each one, but there are emerging trends which could result in SIM connectivity for laptops.

Firstly, Wifi could have been viewed as a better solution because of patchy coverage. Considered we still complain about 4G coverage today, this is a very real reason, though thanks to pressure from regulators and governments, most developed countries are eradicating not spots.

Secondly, the price of a GB of data varies quite considerably, though this is certainly decreasing as more markets shift towards unlimited bundles. The delivery of 4G connectivity is always becoming more efficient, therefore the transition towards commoditised data tariffs will only continue. This will aid the business case for embedded 4G connectivity in laptops.

Staying with data bundles, more telcos are offering flexible tariffs, allowing customers to purchase ‘data buckets’ for more than one device. If the telcos offer such products, alongside unlimited allowances, this will be another justifying trend to embed SIMs in laptops.

Looking at industry attention, there has always been some directed towards laptop connectivity, but it was almost an afterthought. Intel and Qualcomm has investing more in this area in recent months however. Should the products be on the market, at an affordable price, there might be increased enthusiasm from the likes of HP and Lenovo to produce such products at scale.

Finally, user demand. Wifi and tethering do provide an option for connectivity, but they also do for wearables. Working from home or on the road is becoming increasingly common, a trend which might encourage the adoption of connected PCs.

What is worth noting is that as there is not a silver bullet, it becomes more difficult to become optimistic about the future of SIM connectivity in laptops.

As tethered connectivity is a well-practiced activity, therefore embedding modems in laptops might be the solution for a problem which is not that great. The cost of adding modems has always been an issue for the industry, though there is one area worth is keeping a keen eye on.

In July, Apple announced it was acquiring Intel’s smartphone modem business. This might be so Apple could gain greater control of its iPhone supply chain, though it also presents the opportunity to embed modems into the MacBook.

As embedding the modem into the PC device could be done at a substantially lower cost, and Apple does have a customer base which would be tolerant of a premium placed on devices.

Although the market is not particularly optimistic about the idea of modems in laptops, Apple could change that perception. Apple’s idea to drastically shift mobile devices form factor was originally met with pessimism, but edge-to-edge screens are the norm nowadays. If Apple can prove its customers want to buy products with embedded modems, others will most likely follow.

This is perhaps a trend which could turn the tides of the PC segment permanently. Today’s estimates of growth are encouraging, but you have to question whether it will be a sustained change, after all, the primary driver for new purchases is Windows 10. Should laptop connectivity catch-on, there might well be a refreshment cycle for these devices, especially in the enterprise markets where mobility is being encouraged.

However, it is always worth bearing in mind that users are perfectly happy with the connectivity status quo of today, and the price of the products. The issue is, are connected laptops the solution for a problem which does not actually exist?

Interdigital sues Motorola-owner Lenovo over 4G patents

Mobile and video tech developer Interdigital has filed patent infringement action against Lenovo in the UK because they can’t agree a price for use of its 4G patents.

Perhaps wary of being labelled a patent troll, Interdigital is keen to stress that this is the first patent infringement litigation it has initiated for six years. It claims its hand has been forced after the failure of almost a decade of negotiation with Lenovo, which makes Motorola phones as well as its own-branded devices.

Interdigital reckons it owns around 10% of the standards-essential patents in both 3G and 4G technology, which means it gets a piece of the action whenever someone sells a device that uses them. How much users of these patents have to pay is usually determined on a FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) basis, but apparently Lenovo won’t even accept third party FRAND arbitration.

Patent litigation canned comments are among the most formulaic, but let’s have a look anyway. “Having product companies take fair licenses to patented technologies flowing out of fundamental research is absolutely essential for the long-term success of worldwide standards like 4G and 5G,” said William Merritt, CEO of Interdigital.

“InterDigital has a long history of valuable technology innovation and patient, good faith negotiation and fair licensing practices, including our willingness to allow the economic terms of a FRAND license to be determined via binding neutral arbitration. We also have longstanding licensing relationships with many of the top companies in the mobile space, including successful license arrangements with Samsung, Apple, LG and Sony, among others.

“For our company, we turn to litigation only when we feel that negotiations are not being carried out in good faith. In bringing this claim in the UK High Court of Justice, which has a history of examining standards-essential patent issues, we are hopeful for a speedy resolution and a fair license.”

Here are the patents in question:

  • European Patent (UK) 2 363 008 – Enables the efficient control of carrier aggregation in 4G (LTE). In advanced mobile phones, carrier aggregation is key to achieving high data rates.
  • European Patent (UK) 2 557 714 – Supports the use of multiple antennae transmissions in 4G (LTE). The patent enables the use of flexible levels of error protection for reporting by the handset, increasing the reliability of the signaling.
  • European Patent (UK) 2 485 558 – Allows mobile phone users quick and efficient access to 4G (LTE) networks. One of the main technological challenges of developing LTE networks was efficient bandwidth usage for various traffic types such as VoIP, FTP and HTTP. This patent relates to inventions for quickly and efficiently requesting shared uplink resources — for example, reducing lag when requesting a webpage on a smartphone on LTE networks.
  • European Patent (UK) 2 421 318 – Decreases latency during HSUPA transmission by eliminating certain scenarios in HSUPA where scheduling requests may be blocked. A blocked scheduling request may prevent a smartphone from sending data.

Interdigital presumably has others that Lenovo is using in its devices, so either there’s no dispute over the them or Interdigital is focusing on the four juiciest ones, who knows? Patent litigation is pretty arcane stuff at the best of times, but it seems like Lenovo must have really pushed its luck for its relationship with Interdigital to come to this. It’s hard to see how they can justify refusing to go to FRAND arbitration, but there could well be extenuating circumstances that will come to light in due course.

Going under the hood of Qualcomm Snapdragon 855: plenty to like

More details of Qualcomm’s first 5G chipset have been released, bringing all-round improvements, and a 5G chipset for PCs was also announced.

On the first day of its annual Snapdragon Technology Summit, Qualcomm announced its 5G chipset for mobile devices, the Snapdragon 855, but released limited specs. On the following two days more details were disclosed. An SoC for 5G-connected PCs, the Snapdragon 8cx was also unveiled.

In addition to the X50 modem for 5G connectivity (on both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies) and X24 modem (to provide LTE connectivity), at the centre of the Snapdragon 855 is ARM’s new flagship Cortex A76 CPU, marketed by Qualcomm as Kryo 485. It contains 8 cores with the single core top performance at 2.84 GHz. Qualcomm claims the 855 is 45% faster than its predecessor 845, though it did not specify what exactly this refers to. More importantly for Qualcomm, the top speed is 9% faster than the Kirin 980 from HiSilicon (a Huawei subsidiary), another 7-nanometre implementation of the ARM Cortex A76.

Also included in the 855 is the new Adreno 640 GPU rendering graphics. Qualcomm has focused 855’s marketing messages on gaming performance, and the GPU is at the core to deliver it. Qualcomm claims the new GPU will enable true HDR gaming, as well as support the HDR10+ and Dolby Vision formats. Together with the display IP, the Adreno 640 GPU will support 120fps gaming as well as smooth 8K 360-degree video playback. Another feature highlighted is the support for Physically Based Rendering in graphics, which will help improve VR and AR experience, including more accurate lighting physics and material interactions, for example more life-like surface texture, or material-on-material audio interaction.

The key new feature on Snapdragon’s Hexagon 690 DSP is that it now includes a dedicated Machine Learning (ML) inferencing engine in the new “tensor accelerator”. The Hexagon 690 also doubles the number of HVX vector pipelines over its predecessors the Hexagon 680 and 685, to include four 1024b vector pipelines. The doubled computing power and the dedicated ML engine combined are expected to improve the Snapdragon 855’s AI capability by a big margin.

The integrated new Spectra 380 image signalling processor (ISP) will both improve the Snapdragon’s capability to deepen acceleration and to save power consumption when processing images. Qualcomm believes the new ISP will only consume a quarter of the power as its predecessor for image object classification, object segmentation, depth sensing (at 60 FPS), augmented reality body tracking, and image stabilisation.

On the OEM collaboration side, in addition to Samsung, on day 2 of the event we also saw Pete Lau, the CEO of Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus come to the stage to endorse the new 5G chipset and vow to be the “first to feature” the Snapdragon 855. Separately, the British mobile operator EE announced that it will range a OnePlus 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019.

On the same day, thousands of miles away, more Chinese smartphone OEMs including Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo, and ZTE (in addition to OnePlus) also embraced the new Snapdragon chipset at the China Mobile Global Partner Conference in Guangzhou, southern China. China Mobile will also launch a customer premise equipment (CPE), likely a fixed wireless access modem, using the same platform.

Back in Hawaii, on day 3 of the Snapdragon Tech Summit, Qualcomm launched a new chipset for PC: the Snapdragon 8cx (“c” for computer, “x” for eXtreme). This is Qualcomm’s third iteration of chipset for PC, built on ARM v8.1 (a variant of Cortex A76). Similar to the Snapdragon 855, the 8cx also has the X24 integrated cellular modem with for LTE connectivity, and the X50 modem with 5G connectivity can be paired with it. The CPU also has eight cores, with a top speed of 2.75 GHz. The new Adreno 680 GPU is said to process graphics twice as fast as the GPU in the previous generation ARM for Windows chipset (Snapdragon 850) but 60% more efficient in power consumption.

Perhaps the most meaningful change is its memory architecture. The Snapdragon 8cx will have a 128-bit wide interface, enabling it to provide native support for much more software and applications, including Windows 10 Enterprise and Office 365, which clearly is a sales pitch to the corporate IT departments.

Unlike the OEM support garnered by Snapdragon 855, there was no public endorsement by PC makers yet. Lenovo did come to the stage but was only talking about its Yoga 2-in-1 notebooks that have used earlier generations of Snapdragon chipsets for Windows on ARM. On the other hand, Qualcomm does not position Snapdragon 8cx as a replacement for the 850 but rather as a higher end contemporary, with 850 mainly targeted at a niche consumer market.

In general, this year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit has delivered more step change with the new product launches. More concrete industry support was also on show, indicating that, depending on how fast and extensive 5G is to be rolled out, we may start seeing true 5G smartphones in the first half of next year. We may need to wait a bit longer before a reasonable line-up of always-on 5G connected PCs can hit the market.

Qualcomm tries to make friends and influence people in China

Embattled chip giant Qualcomm is so keen to acquire new allies it has held a special event in China to court its smartphone vendors.

In common with the rest of the industry it’s all about 5G this year, and for the foreseeable future, for Qualcomm. We’re already all too aware how aroused telcos’ marketing departments are at the prospect of slapping 5G on everything, on the assumption that they’ll flog loads more of it as a consequence. This trend is likely to be most conspicuous among smartphone vendors.

A lot of these are Chinese, so it makes sense for Qualcomm to make a bee-line for them, especially since the only other two of note are Samsung, which has an ambivalent chip relationship with Qualcomm, and Apple, which seems to actively despise Qualcomm. The result is the ‘5G Pioneer Initiative’, which involves Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, Lenovo, ZTE and Wingtech. What, no Huawei?

“5G will bring massive new opportunities to the mobile industry, and we are excited to work with these manufacturers on this 5G Pioneer Initiative,” said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm. “Qualcomm Technologies has close relationships within China’s mobile and semiconductor ecosystem, and we’ll continue to work with this ecosystem to drive innovation as we move from the 3G/4G era to the 5G era.” Everyone else said stuff too, but it was more of the same. Suffice it to say they’re all pleased, excited and committed.

On top of that Lenovo, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi all signed a memorandum of understanding (where’s the photo? How do we know it happened unless there’s a photo of loads of people in suits standing behind a desk with a bit of paper on it?) for the multi-year purchase of RF front-end solutions.

Apparently all this MoU amounts to is a statement of intent to purchase some gear from Qualcomm, but with no obligations, so you have to wonder what the point of it is. Our guess would be that this is some bullish messaging directed at investors currently being courted by Broadcom as part of its hostile takeover bid. Lots of spokespeople said things, again.