Ina Fried

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Palm, Qualcomm Chiefs Weigh Wireless Future

Palm-CEO-turned-HP-exec Jon Rubinstein and Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs faced off with Kara Swisher of All Things Digital at a Churchill Club event last night in an entertaining discussion on the future of mobile tech.

If you missed the live video feed of the event, check back with us–we’re working to repost the video. For those who want to read text, here is my liveblog of the event.

6:48 pm PT: We’re just finishing dinner. It was a chicken in some sort of puff pastry. Nothing is happening onstage, as if that wasn’t clear by the fact I am describing the meal. I think they will get started around 7:15 or so.

7:10 pm: Just about ready to go, with intros going on now. (And I just stole Kara’s seat at the head table.)

Kara: They’re both guys. Paul is taller and they work in tech.

7:14 pm: The plan is to talk about the future, but the event begins with a trip down memory lane as Jacobs holds up the Qualcomm PDQ–arguably the first smartphone combining a cellphone and Palm Pilot. For those who don’t remember, it it was bigger than a Palm Pilot and a huge phone strapped together.

7:20 pm: Digital device history continues. We’ve traced the last decade in digital devices, from the iPod through the Treo and iPhone. Don’t forget ringtones and cellphone bowling, Jacobs reminds us, referring to the Brew operating environment that Qualcomm developed.

The iPhone changed everything, Jacobs says, because it showed that the phone makers just weren’t putting enough work into the phone’s user interface.

7:28 pm: Talk is shifting to where we are today. What are the key things that are shifting? User interfaces, touch, etc. “The other things we are seeing is all of our lives are moving into the cloud,” Rubinstein says. On the limitation side, Jacobs points to the limitations of bandwidth: “We don’t have enough spectrum right now,” Jacobs says, adding that the industry and government are working on it. ‘We are just going to have to be more creative about how we get content to the devices.”

The other big limitation, Jacobs says, is battery life. You can do all this cool stuff on your phone, but then the battery dies three-quarters of the way through the day. He puts in a plug for Mirasol–Qualcomm’s low-power display technology.

Rubinstein concurs that battery and bandwidth are the two biggest issues. “Battery technology has not progressed at the same rate as all of the other things we are trying to do,” Rubinstein says.

7:38 pm: What about all the operating systems out there, Kara asks. Rubinstein: “There’s plenty of room in the market for multiple systems,” he says, adding it won’t be like PCs, where one operating system dominates. “It’s just different today.”

Rubinstein says it’s still the infancy of the major transition. Put on the spot to rank the operating systems, Rubinstein says that clearly Apple and Android are going gangbusters. The battle, he says, is for who is going to be No. 3. “We’d sure like to be that.”

Jacobs: “I agree. It’s very early days to be calling winners and losers.” He sees pretty wide diversity of operating systems, at least for the next five years, unless the operators really clamp down. Even then, there are some alternate distribution channels emerging. Either way, Qualcomm’s in good shape as an arms dealer, he points out.

7:45 pm: Discussion of carriers. While they are immensely powerful, Rubinstein says they won’t be the only distribution channel for every wireless device. “They are not all going to go through the carriers,” Rubinstein says.

More and more screens will emerge, Rubinstein says. If I fast-forward enough years, he says, the walls are going to be big displays capable of talking to other devices.

Jacobs notes that people will be able to use their device with any tool they have access to, from a big screen to a headset to a wireless keyboard. He says Qualcomm is working on a technology that would allow wireless headsets that could work in-ear like a hearing aid.

7:50 pm: Talk about some outlandish things. Rubinstein has already thrown out the idea of a headset in your pillow. Rubinstein points out that there will be a lot of sensors, pointing to the Nike+iPod as a really early example of what we can expect a lot more of.

7:55 pm: Augmented reality is also going to be big, the panelists agree. “The (StarTrek) tricorder is going to happen,” Jacobs says. Health care will also tap mobile technology, particularly in emerging countries where there is less regulation, carriers are trusted and there are fewer skilled health care providers available. “It’s a very efficient way to manage health,” he says. “Over the next few years we will see this happen,” he says. Eventually it will come back to developed markets, but today there is too much legacy and too much regulation in places like the U.S.

8:10 pm: Sorry for the delay–we were fixing some issues with the video coding, which hopefully should be solved now. Anyway, Rubinstein and Jacobs have been throwing out things that they expect in the next five years.

Jacobs’s list includes digital networked textbooks, cellphones as gateways for health care, as well as using augmented reality to translate all the signs and menus in a foreign country.

Rubinstein and Jacobs both see a digital wallet becoming a reality, with Jacobs throwing out the idea of an end to checkout lines as the phone could pay and the store could electronically disable the security on goods, allowing the whole transaction to take place without interaction with store personnel.

“Legal shoplifting, that’s interesting.” Kara says.

The technical hurdles aren’t that big, Rubinstein says. “Clearly NFC (near-field communications) is coming.” It’s more of a social problem than a technical one, Rubinstein says.

8:21 pm: Some good audience questions. One, on what does it take to deliver an Apple-like experience. Rubinstein, who has experience as part of Apple and trying to “out-Apple” Apple, says he thinks that the key is delivering an intergrated experience.

“I don’t think Apple is the only one that can do it, but I do think it is important to have all the elements,” he says.

Another question is on the future of mobile TV–a question that prompts Jacobs to cover his face (Qualcomm spent a bundle on its MediaFlo mobile TV service that saw very limited consumer uptake and Qualcomm is now evaluating what to do with it).

Too few people liked what the service had to offer, Jacobs says, referring to limits on content, screen size, etc. Jacobs said it appears that probably broadcast makes sense for live events, while streaming with TiVo-like controls makes sense for everything else.

“I actually believe strongly in mobile TV, still,” he says.

8:30 pm: Okay. That’s a wrap from me. Thanks for tuning in. If you want to hear more from Rubinstein, he will be speaking at next week’s D: Dive Into Mobile conference.

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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