Ina Fried

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Broadcom Diagrams the Smartphone of Tomorrow

Though relatively rare on today’s smartphones, new capabilities to more easily connect to nearby devices are on the verge of becoming ubiquitous, according to Broadcom, a major supplier of wireless chips.

Among the technologies that are quickly moving to the mainstream are a new, lower power form of Bluetooth along with Wi-Fi Direct, which lets two devices talk to each other over Wi-Fi without the need to first connect through a router. Also moving from the fringes to the mainstream of the smartphone market is support for so-called Near Field Communications, technology that is most noted for allowing mobile payment, but can also provide a quick means of authentication and sharing of other types of data.

“We’re seeing a huge interest for NFC,” Broadcom Senior Vice President Michael Hurlston said on Wednesday, speaking to a group of reporters in San Francisco.

Broadcom, as CEO Scott McGregor told AllThingsD back in February, is also hard at work on chips to power both low-cost Android phones as well as on technology to improve location-based services indoors, where satellite-based approaches work less well.

The sub-$100 phone market is being further fueled by new players like China’s Huawei and ZTE that are building less expensive phones that can be sold under the carrier’s brands. “Android has certainly been something that has leveled the playing field,” Hurlston said. That trend has helped Broadcom grow its business in China, where it had been less of a strong player.

Hurlston noted that more of its business is still at the high-end of the smartphone market, an area where brands like HTC, Motorola and Apple are seeing strong growth. “The high end of the market is still growing like crazy…but that low end seems to be eating a lot into the feature phone and basic voice [phone market] and that’s very good for us as a business.”

Although battery life is a concern for Broadcom, Hurlston said that one of the challenges is that it is not as high on the request list from the wireless carriers, who have a huge role in dictating what goes into the phones, since–especially in the U.S.–they are the ones buying the phones from device makers.

“What they are most interested in are these new features,” Hurlston said.

Wi-Fi Direct, Hurlston said, should become much more common by the end of the year. “We definitely expect to see a large percentage of phones by year end become Wi-Fi Direct enabled.”

NFC and indoor location services should start to take off toward the end of this year and into the first half of next year, he said.

Another thing that is surprisingly low on the feature request list from carriers, Broadcom executives said, is demand for better voice quality, even though new 4G networks could support using some of that extra bandwidth for improved calling. “What we are not seeing is a lot of pull,” Hurlston said.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus