Last December, Qualcomm held a major media event in Maui, HI to launch what they call their connected PC initiative. Qualcomm is best known for their cellular radios that are in almost all smartphones, and their new SnapDragon 735, and 845 processors are now capable enough to also power a laptop. The key idea is to add a cellular connection to laptops using their Snapdragon processors thus making them a “connected PC” since that laptop would always have a connection via WIFI or cellular just as our smartphones have today.
Joining them in this announcement was Microsoft who strongly supported Windows OS on a Qualcomm processor, also known as Windows on ARM. If this sounds familiar, Microsoft launched a similar program with various ARM processor companies in 2014, but it failed since the processors back then were not powerful enough to handle Windows OS and Windows had to be run in an emulation mode which made these ARM-based laptops run sluggishly at best.
This time around the processor that Qualcomm is bringing to the table is fast enough to run Windows OS 10 even when, in some cases, it has to revert to emulation mode to do so.
As I sat through the major presentation by Qualcomm and Microsoft Executives describing their new “Connected PC” program at the Maui event, the first thing I thought was “is this just a new try at Windows on ARM” and remembering what a disaster that was the last time this was tried. But as I got to check out the demos and do some one on one’s with Qualcomm and Microsoft Executives about the role a more powerful Snapdragon processor and a tailored version of Windows 10S created for this program could deliver, I saw that this idea had real merit and potential.
While in theory, I like the idea of always being connected, anytime and anywhere, I knew from our research that connectivity via cellular was not a high priority when it comes to features wanted in a laptop. Indeed, we have had the availability of cellular modems as options for laptops for over ten years, and demand for this feature in laptops is very low.
Another good benchmark to measure demand for cellular connectivity beyond a smartphone is the cellular activation rates of iPads. It turns out that of all iPads sold, around 50% buy up to include a cellular modem. But our research shows that less than 20% of those iPads with a cellular modem in them activate them.
The key reason for lack of real demand for a cellular connection in a laptop or a tablet is the additional cellular costs this adds to a person’s cell phone bill. When I asked one major cellular carriers about how they would price the connection on a connected PC, they said it would be an additional $10 or 12 dollars a month fee, and data used on a laptop would count against the person’s monthly data allotment they pay for already.
I could imagine that a younger demographic user who watches a lot of Youtube videos and accesses a lot of content on their laptops now, could go through their allotted all-you-can-eat 22-25 gig personal data plan in one or two weeks and then their data speeds on both their smartphone and connected laptop go down to 128 kbps.
Our research about the demand for cellular in a laptop was done sometime back so early this year we updated this survey by asking people “what are the three most important features you want in the next notebook or laptop you will buy.” As you can see from this chart below, long battery life, more memory, and larger hard drive storage topped their list. Cellular connectivity came in farther down the list at just over 20% interested, which pretty much maps to our iPad research mentioned above.
The good news for Qualcomm and Microsoft is that while both touted the “connected PC” initiative at the event, they also emphasized that by using these new Snapdragon processors one could get as much as 22 hours of continuous battery life. In talks with their execs after the main announcement, they hinted that people could probably get even more hours of battery life depending on how their OEM partners configured them and the OS versions they would use from Microsoft.
My fear for both Qualcomm and Microsoft is that by leading with the connected PC story and subsequent marketing pushes around this focus, it will not drive the kind of tech adoption they hope to get from this program, and we could have another Windows on Arm failure in the works. The research we did a year ago and in the last week shows that the real interest is in longer battery life. That would drive significant demand for Windows on ARM with QQ this time around provided it delivers the kind of performance they stated at the launch event in Maui in early December. They should brand this the “All Day PC” and make this the new battle cry for laptop upgrades going forward.
This is an important moment for the PC industry. While consumers like new designs that are thinner and lighter, as our survey points out, that is not what drives purchases of new laptops. Longer Battery life, more memory, and storage top their buying criteria. If Qualcomm and Microsoft, along with others, who want to compete with a feature that may drive a new level of demand for laptops in the future then they need to cater to these interests and make cellular connectivity a nice to have feature for those who are willing to pay the connectivity tax they will get from their carriers.