Paul Jacobs: The star showman of the tech world
Jan 21, 2013
This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the biggest event in the technology calendar, showcased everything from a smart fork (it vibrates when you eat too quickly), to an iPotty, to the largest 3D video wall in the world, says The Guardian.
If you’re not a tech aficionado, the appeal of the event, which sees “150,000 geeks flash their hardware at each other by day and stare at their phones in casinos at night”, is limited. But this year a new star showman was born.
Most consumers have never heard of Qualcomm or its CEO Paul Jacobs, says the FT. Yet he has “probably done as much for the smartphone as the late Steve Jobs” and at CES he finally “stepped confidently from the shadows”, taking the eve-of-show keynote speech slot traditionally occupied by Bill Gates.
Tall and affable, Jacobs, 50, is a Star Trek fan, gadget addict and “a man of ideas” who has personally registered no fewer than 40 different patents. He’s also got ambition in spades. His aim is to establish Qualcomm – which has grown by combining wireless, processing and graphics power on a single chip – as the emblematic chip maker of the “mobile era”, just as Intel came to define “the fading personal computer one”.
If Jacobs is good at “mixing showbiz with chips”, it’s all in good keeping: Qualcomm’s success, after all, is founded on a technology created by the mid-20th-century Hollywood movie star and inventor, Hedy Lamarr (see below).
Yet, from a business point of view, Jacobs’ achievement is no less remarkable, says The New York Times. He has pulled off the rare feat of taking a successful company built by his father onto the next level, by following his gut feeling. “Corporate governance specialists often disapprove of such [family] successions.” Not this one.
The old Qualcomm, built by the renowned technologist and industry bruiser Dr Irwin Jacobs, developed a digital wireless process called CDMA, which eventually became the basis of every 3G network globally. Irwin powered his way to that position, using litigation as a sledgehammer. But by the time his son took over in 2005, the firm was enmeshed in a growing row over its royalties, culminating in a potentially ruinous anti-monopoly class-action filed by competitors. Qualcomm needed a new direction; Paul provided it.
The third of four Jacobs sons, Paul, 50, “didn’t grow up expecting to become CEO”, said Fortune in 2006. His mother had hoped he’d take his academic speciality, robotics, further. But in the 1990s he had an “epiphany” about how mobile phones could evolve to embrace a lot more than voice, and he took the idea to his father. The rest is history.
“I used to go to cocktail parties and tell people how they have the internet on the phone and they looked at me like I was nuts,” he recalls. No one’s sniggering now.
The Star Trek future of the smartphone
“Let’s take a moment to reflect on the mercurial brilliance of Hedy Lamarr,” says The Guardian. Not only did the Vienna-born actress flee a loveless marriage to a Nazi arms dealer to secure a massive contract with MGM, but “she also took time off to invent a device that would eventually revolutionise” mobile communications.
Building on knowledge gleaned from her ex-husband, who’d been interested in military control systems, she was awarded a US patent for “a secret communication system” for radio-guided torpedos in 1942. Lamarr was ahead of her time: the invention languished in US Navy files for decades. But it eventually became a vital constituent part of the GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology that’s made another visionary, Paul Jacobs, very rich.
Last year, Qualcomm surpassed Intel for the first time to become the largest chip maker by market value. It currently has a whopping 42% slice of the mobile-application processor market, shipping 150 million chips each quarter. But that hasn’t stopped Jacobs dreaming, says Malia Wollan in The New York Times.
He’s obsessed with the so-called “internet of things” – in which everyday objects have tiny chips or sensors that communicate with mobile devices. And he’s particularly driven by healthcare applications.
“The sensors are going to be in your body; they’re going to be in the environment around you.” Jacobs tells the FT that “micro-technology will send alerts to our phones two weeks in advance of an impending heart attack, for instance”.
His early interest in robotics has come full circle. And all those years watching Star Trek haven’t been wasted either. He recently teamed up with Peter Diamandis’s X Prize Foundation to launch a $10m competition for a diagnostic smartphone tool, to rival the miraculous Tricorder used by Bones McCoy on the show.
So far, there have been entries from more than 230 teams from 30 countries. “Now this is a little futuristic, I’ll admit,” he says. “But it’s not that far-fetched.”
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