Qualcomm and Microsoft announce the latest entrant in the PC wars: the Connected PC

Can a new device segment revitalize the PC market?

Kathleen Maher

It was a couple of years ago that Qualcomm and Microsoft threatened the PC status quo with the Always Connected PC, a true PC running Windows 10 on an Arm-based mobile phone processor with enough battery life to run for more than one day, and mobile wireless connectivity to always be connected to the Internet. Today, in Hawaii no less, Qualcomm joined with partners Microsoft, HP, Asus, Samsung, Sprint, and Xiaomi to celebrate Qualcomm’s newest 845 Snapdragon and the imminent arrival of the Always Connected computer enabled by the current Snapdragon 835. (Lenovo was also mentioned as an OEM for Connected PCs, but is not announcing until CES).

Qualcomm’s Christiano Amon, EVP of Qualcomm Technologies and President of CDMA calls the arrival of the Always Connected PC a major market inflection point. The company is teeing up the new segment to take advantage of the widespread use of 4G LTE networks and the significant changes that are coming as a result of 5G, which Qualcomm says will arrive in 2019 and be fully established by 2010 as part of their 10-year cadence on faster network speeds.

The Always Connected PC being waved around onstage by HP and Asus, the companies with the first announcements, and products to show, do not look much different from the laptops we’re all using today. They’re a little thinner; they’re a little lighter. HP’s version has a world facing depth sensing camera and a pen. The Asus model, looks like Asus’ super thin & lite notebook. It has an HDMI port and a solid keyboard. But, what’s most important about both of them is that they have remarkably long battery lives—up to 22 hours active use and 30 days standby. The people who have been using these devices claim the for average consumer use the PCs are good for several days without charging; even a week for occasional use. That means no toting around a power supply.

They’re always connected because they’re relying on Qualcomm’s LTE modem giving them the same kind of connectivity one gets from their smartphone these days. Amon says the advantages of wireless over WiFi are obvious: most of the world has coverage and in the United States over 92% of the country has access. And, wireless connections with built-in encryption are safer than Wi-Fi, which is open to unscrupulous providers and even moderately talented hackers. Qualcomm notes that they’re uniquely positioned for this segment because their modems are in 99% of mobile phones. Amon says they are the largest platform in the world.

To be fair, there are disadvantages. Wireless connections are generally metered connections as anyone who has rung up a $600 charge while being lost in London learns the hard way. And actually, the entire U.S. is uncertain about their Internet connectivity costs with the antics of the FCC and our government seriously threatening net neutrality and providers clamoring for higher charges for streaming data.

Christiano Amon and Terry Myerson from Microsoft both stressed that the natural trajectory for connectivity has been coming down in price as volume goes up as more people get connected and people use their phone for everything from texting to watching movies. Carriers are all enabling packages to support devices like the connected PC with the ability to have one mobile account for multiple devices. The device, like most phones will be able to choose the best (cheapest) method of connectivity when both WiFi and mobile connections are available. Günther Ottendorfer, Sprint’s CFO, said his company is committed to delivering unlimited data to Windows on the Snapdragon ecosystem.

Microsoft and Qualcomm

Since they announced the coming of the Connected PC Microsoft and Qualcomm have been working together to create a seamless emulation layer for the device. And therein lies the biggest challenge for the Connected PC. With the ghost of the RT Surface still haunting the dreams of Microsoft executives, and PC OEMs, it’s imperative that any PC running on an Arm based processor like the Snapdragon run exactly like any PC. “It’s just Windows,” Microsoft executives insist. It’s also imperative that customers know what to expect. The Connected PC runs on Windows 10 S, a new version that is “streamlined for security and performance.” It’s emulation technology is currently tuned for  32-bit Windows applications and applications in Microsoft store compiled for ARM. If other 64-bit Windows applications are needed the Connected PC can use Windows 10 Pro for free. Qualcomm and Microsoft say those restrictions are not big problems for most consumers, but there could be some challenges for power users in imaging and video editing who work with very large files. Qualcomm and Microsoft see the play for the Connected PC first as a consumer device. They see it in the enterprise as something akin to the light client in years past. It will be primarily used to provide a low cost, uniform, experience to knowledge workers, in retail, office applications, point of sale, etc. iRight now gamers will probably not be satisfied with a Connected PC but Qualcomm and Microsoft says one of their priorities will be to support popular triple A games.

Qualcomm is convinced the Connected PC will redefine the PC market but they’re not quite sure about how it will play out. The most obvious changes they see is that people will be able to leave their charger at home when leaving for the day, or even two days, which could even include a long airplane ride. They don’t need a tablet and a PC. Qualcomm and Microsoft believe the new Connected PC will revitalize the languishing PC market.

Will it threaten tablets? How about Chromebooks. Qualcomm is happy to take market share from Apple iPads but they’re not so sure about Chromebooks. Maybe, when the Snapdragon 845 version is available (late next year) it will challenge the Chromebook for battery life and performance. Qualcomm wouldn’t say no. Qualcomm expects to earn $3 billion in revenues for non-smartphone products this year, a slice growing at 25 percent a year, Amon said. Even a thin slice of the 270 million unit/year PC market adds to that figure.

What do we think?

This is an intriguing product. We fiddled with the new products from Asus and HP. They feel like computers, and the Asus has a grown-up keyboard. The HP opts for a thin keyboard and a more lightweight form factor. The idea of leaving the tablet behind does make sense. But, there are the gamer types who simply won’t be having it—just yet. There are gamers who play AAA games on a PC with integrated graphics from AMD or Intel. They will be prime candidates for the connected PC, Qualcomm’s graphics are quite good.

We were thinking the price tag was a little high, the clamshell Asus NovaGo starts at $599 for 64 GB storage, and with 256 GB memory is $799. Christiano Amon protests saying for what it costs to get the latest high end phone on the market (the, ahem, Apple iPhone X) you could buy two low cost PCs and have change left over. More important, says Amon, this is the first entry of these devices. Prices will come down. There will be new form factors. Qualcomm is creating this segment for the long haul. Then there is the issue of “the plan.” Do consumers get one account (and eSIM) for several devices, or one account for each machine? Will they buy the machine at retail, unlocked, or as a subsidized device like a smartphone, locked (at least temporarily) to a carrier’s network? The answer, thinks Amon, is all the above.