Mobile Phone Metamorphosis

Paul Jacobs (B.S. '84, M.S. '86, Ph.D. '89 EECS) received the 2008 Berkeley Engineering Innovation Award. Paul Jacobs (B.S. '84, M.S. '86, Ph.D. '89 EECS) received the 2008 Berkeley Engineering Innovation Award. Paul Jacobs (B.S. ’84, M.S. ’86, Ph.D. ’89 EECS) sees no limits to what next-generation cell phones will do.

As a development engineer, an executive and now CEO of Qualcomm, the San Diego-based wireless technology company, Jacobs has played a major role in the transformation of the mobile phone. Along with their original function in voice communications, the devices have evolved into wireless computers, music players, digital cameras, navigational tools, and medical diagnostic and monitoring equipment. And, says Jacobs, still more advances are on the way.

“Innovation comes from being open to diverse ideas,” says Jacobs, who holds more than 35 patents for his inventions. “The world changes and you change.”

In the works are more powerful cell phones that can perform banking, credit card and other financial transactions; serve as handheld televisions; and even detect heart irregularities. “There’s going to be a lot more multimedia, entertainment, music players, cameras, game machines…almost anything you can think of,” says Jacobs, the 2008 recipient of the Berkeley Engineering Innovation Award.

Jacobs took over the reins at Qualcomm in 2005, succeeding his father, Irwin, who was a professor of computer science and engineering at UC San Diego and cofounded the company in 1985. Though the leadership job means “I’m not writing code anymore or designing circuits,” the younger Jacobs remains close to technological development. Most of the company’s top engineers report to him, and he relishes the exchange of new concepts and strategies for implementing them.

“I was always a kid interested in science and math,” explains Jacobs. UC Berkeley was his only choice for college: He was drawn by Cal’s academics and the eclectic quality of Berkeley itself. “I moved from a house that overlooked the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla to a dorm room overlooking People’s Park,” he quips.

Jacobs completed all his degrees at Berkeley, earning his doctorate in robotics under Professor John Canny. After a stint as a postdoctoral researcher in France, Jacobs weighed career options in academics and private industry. “I decided I liked building products,” he concluded, returning to San Diego and joining Qualcomm in 1990.

Jacobs’s early work involved building a speech coder for digital phones that relied on code division multiple access (CDMA), the company’s pioneering system of encoding and transmitting signals. Over the next 15 years, he tackled such projects as smart phones, phones equipped with global positioning systems technology and a platform for software applications called BREW.

Jacobs takes a contrarian approach to innovation. “Almost every innovation I’ve been involved in during my career has started by looking at what everyone said was true and figuring out what was wrong with their thinking,” Jacobs explained in his May 2006 commencement address to Berkeley engineering graduates.

“That’s sort of the history of the company,” he adds, calling the development of CDMA a prime example. He considers that technology a “complete left turn from where the industry was heading.”

Today, Qualcomm’s research and development is pursuing multiple fronts. Bay Area subscribers will have access in February to MediaFLO, a service linking cell phones to television. As it awaits the transition to digital television in individual locales, MediaFLO has already been launched in 58 cities nationwide.

In the developing world, Qualcomm’s ventures include equipping a rural health clinic in Peru with wireless connections to help treat patients; enabling grape growers in India to send digital images of their diseased plants via camera phones to agricultural experts; and donating phones that link Chinese farmers to markets and current commodity prices.

With more than three billion subscribers, cell phones are a powerful tool for delivering cutting-edge technology to a worldwide audience, Jacobs says. Noting that Qualcomm recently shipped 85 million chipsets in a single quarter, he says, “You have the opportunity to do something new that’s going to have an impact globally.”