The chip maker is tweaking the way it refers to its Snapdragon processors
By Jon Gabay,
What’s really in a name? Certainly associations with other
synonyms or acronyms. Also branding which is an association unto itself. Names
also have connotations that can conjure up visions or even affect senses.
When a product name is involved, it takes on new levels of
meanings. Branding and trademarking have important business consequences and
even legal ramifications, including creating a distinct product identity,
avoiding infringement, and preventing infringement and dilution by others.
Snapdragon is no longer a processor, but is now considered a platform. Image source: Qualcomm.
The recent push from Qualcomm to redefine
the term “processor” is one of those mixed bags. A processor, as it’s
generally known in the electrical engineering design community, is a microcontroller
or a microprocessor that’s the central processing unit (CPU) heart of any
computer or dedicated device.
The processor arose from meager roots that began from ROM-based
bit slice engines that merely used logic past and present, states to address
sequences coded into ROM that were able to quickly and flexibly direct digital
operations in a predetermined way.
The first product that everyone truly agreed was a
microprocessor was the Intel 4004, which grew to the 8008, and then became the
first widely accepted and used processor: the 8080. Of course, these are rather
Spartan in comparison to modern processors. There was no internal firmware — just
micro-code that directed an internal sequencer to execute predefined
instructions in a reliable and deterministic way. Key was the integration of
logical operations, RAM, registers, and parallel I/O.
Future generations integrated serial I/O, arithmetic units,
networking, ROM, EPROM, Flash, EEPROM, DMA, real-time clocks, DSP
functionality, energy management functionality, power management functionality,
wider bus widths, brown-out and watchdog functionality, A/Ds and D/As, PLLs, oscillators,
and more. All the time, the umbrella term “processor” fit.
The term processor continued to be used even when these
became multi-chip modules and entire systems on substrate type of devices. Even
older Pentiums implemented this type of physical architecture.
So why now is Qualcomm trying to eliminate the term “processor”
from the lexicon of the Snapdragon line of devices they manufacture? Why are
they calling it a “platform” instead? True, it encompasses many technologies
and even several devices integrated into a single module. But at the heart, it’s
a System on a Chip integrating CPU, DSP, RF, modem, charge control, camera
support, security support, touch control, mixed signal, audio, finger print,
It’s impressive as to how much technology has been
integrated into this class of processing device. By touting the term platform,
Qualcomm is trying to express that it has combined these parts to create a
higher level of functionality integrated into a single device. In reality, this
is and has been the trend in so-called “microprocessor” development for a long
It’s not new that a branded name encompasses a class of
devices. Pentium, Centrino, the IBM PC, Android, and other umbrella terms are
also “platforms,” but these can be thought of as “processors” too. Many
products include an embedded computer to make their functionality possible. We’ll
see many products embedding Android architected devices into them as well.
These are all platform-based designs.
There is talk that a key reason for Qualcomm’s
differentiation is to untangle itself from antitrust issues and the scrutiny
it’s under for its licensing and patent royalty structures. From a legal
perspective, by changing the terminology, you might be able to change the
“It is not uncommon for companies to use semantics and even
create new acronyms and other terms to differentiate themselves for various legal
purposes,” attorney Steve Grill of the Devine Millimet law firm in New
Hampshire told Electronic Products. “Even minor updates or changes to existing
products can be used to protect and extend patents. When care is taken to
create products with unique names, functionality, architecture and other
characteristics, valuable intellectual property results and, in addition, charges
of monopolization can often be better defended,” he said. This is certainly
true in electronics, and in the pharmaceutical industry as well.
A processor by any other name may not smell as sweet.
Since studying electrical engineering, Jon Gabay has worked
with defense, commercial, industrial, consumer, energy, and medical companies
as a design engineer, firmware coder, system designer, research scientist, and
product developer. As an alternative energy researcher and inventor, he has
been involved with automation technology since he founded and ran Dedicated
Devices Corp up until 2004. Since then, he has been doing research and
development, writing articles, and developing technologies for
next-generation engineers and students.