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How Cristiano Amon is turning Qualcomm into a sexier tech giant

June 3, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC
Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon
Courtesy of Qualcomm

While headline-grabbing tech companies like Apple, Meta Platforms, and Alphabet get enormous amounts of attention from the press and Wall Street, Qualcomm has often operated quietly under the radar. That’s still true today, even as the wireless-technology company is busy reinventing its business from one historically reliant on technology supporting cell phones to one central to hot areas like the metaverse, self-driving cars, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Qualcomm president and CEO Cristiano Amon, an engineer by training who’s been with the company since 1995, took the reins just under a year ago, setting about implementing a strategy to take advantage of how much more tech will dominate our lives in the coming decades. He is not one to jump on fads, but he says the pandemic accelerated changes already underway in how companies, and humans in general, use tech. That will mean, for instance, greater need for its IoT technology that connects computers and phones to the cloud and to each other.

While many people think of live video games or shopping when they think of the metaverse, Amon sees in this new area a practical way for corporations to conduct many functions—offering training, for instance. Self-driving cars won’t be mainstream tomorrow, he says, but even regular automobiles need his technology, and will so to a greater extent once autonomous-driving innovations take root. So far, Amon’s strategy is working: Qualcomm’s revenue was up 41% last quarter to $11.2 billion, led by gains in its promising IoT business and sales to the automotive industry.

“You’ll have the complete transformation of the automotive industry into connected computers on wheels,” Amon tells Fortune. “You have the enterprise transformation in the home because of the future of work; you have the trends transforming enterprise use. And what’s good about Qualcomm is we’re not just a company that is going to benefit from one trend, we’re going to benefit from all of it.”

Still, while Amon loves tech, he also has a healthy view that it’s not everything in life. One of his big hobbies is fixing old muscle cars from the 1970s. Those models don’t have anything near today’s sophisticated technology—which may be precisely why Amon loves them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: You’ve said Qualcomm is leveraging a major social digital transformation to plot its next chapter. How is society transforming exactly?

Cristiano Amon: In its most simplistic form, companies realized through the pandemic they needed to better connect with people, and they are also connecting their assets. You have some disruptive technology, such as artificial intelligence, which is really about analyzing data and making predictions, that is driving a lot of need for data for things to be intelligent and connected. On the personal side, we have already seen the benefits of greater digital access. As we look at technology development and things like virtual reality, augmented reality—you can use the term metaverse, if you like—it’s going to really expand.

Do you ever worry about a deepening digital divide as tech advances?

I would argue that the smartphone itself has been the greatest mechanism to actually bridge the digital divide. It wasn’t “one laptop per child” that did that. It was the smartphone. In many countries like Brazil, people had access to the internet or learned digital skills for the very first time on their smartphone. If anything, technology now has a greater ability to connect people. During the pandemic, that’s how we remained productive: Kids went to school, we entertained ourselves, and so forth.

Meta recently said the metaverse would cost it a lot of money for a few years, and there is debate out there about how real an opportunity this is. Qualcomm is placing a big bet on the metaverse; what do you see there?

Before you start talking about the metaverse, I think there is a very big technology trend that is real and is happening: the connection between physical and digital spaces. If you look at phones today, the screen size is an artificial limit. There’s a lot more you can do if you’re not limited by the bounds of the screen. And the reality is as technology develops, you have much faster connectivity with 5G. You can actually move the computing platform eventually from this to glasses. There is a lot more that you can do if you actually have a fully immersive, augmented reality.

Like what?

Here’s a very concrete example: During the pandemic, you saw how collaboration tools became very popular. When we are all in a Zoom meeting, we all have the same experience. So in the metaverse, you can have something as simple as having a meeting where you can see holograms of the person, and you have this same exact experience. It’s going to change communications. If you’re thinking of an enterprise application, for example, you can look into how do you train people. How do you actually have tools to do your job? So the applications are really large. It’s not only real, but it’s going to be a significant opportunity.

What about self-driving cars, another area where Qualcomm has placed a big bet?

The car is being completely transformed. The car has already become a connected computer on wheels, and with that, there has really been a need for a lot of new technologies. Car companies needed to become tech companies. Once you connect the car to the cloud, a lot of things change with that car: the distribution of media content; you can change how you personalize the driver experience. You see a lot of people buy holders and put their phone in the dashboard. And it’s because there’s more information in that phone that is relevant to you. The real opportunity is to bring assisted driving capabilities to every car. Why shouldn’t it be any different from airbags, ABS brakes, or seat belts?

I think autonomous driving is going to develop, but it’s going to take time. Fully autonomous vehicles that you’re going to see first will likely be for specialty vehicles like delivery vehicles. To get to the point that you actually have fully autonomous driving, that you’re just going to sit in the back seat and take a nap, that’s going to take some time.

Where are we in the chip shortage saga that has been roiling U.S. industry?

If there’s a silver lining to the chip supply-chain crisis, it’s that people understand the chips are important. We said at the beginning of the year that toward the second half of 2022, we will see a much more balanced demand-supply equation. We took action early in the process in terms of working with suppliers to coinvest in expansion of capacity.

Could there be more chip manufacturing in the U.S.?

This is very possible. That’s what the U.S. Chips Act [part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which includes $52 billion in federal investments for domestic semiconductor research, design, and manufacturing] is designed to do. Within the next decade, we’re going to have to double the global throughputs of semiconductors. So it creates opportunities for a geographically diversified and more reliable supply chain.

Let’s talk a bit about the Internet of Things, another big bet for Qualcomm. Do we really need everything to be connected? Do I really need my dishwasher to be connected to my phone?

It’s not about connecting to the phone so you can operate it remotely. But rather it’s about that appliance, for example, being connected to its maker, and providing valuable information about how you use it, the wear and tear, and about where you’re probably going to have a problem. Going back to the automotive example, your car now is connected to its manufacturer. So as you drive your car, we’re building a digital twin of your car in the cloud, know exactly how you use it, and what is likely to be required for preventive maintenance before you have a problem.

Qualcomm is an established company offering practical products, and arguably not as sexy, or controversial, as a lot of the other big names in tech. Does that ever bother you, that people might not pay Qualcomm much mind as you make this big pivot?

What’s unique about Qualcomm is the technologies that we develop, and you see an ecosystem forming around it. That was the story of Qualcomm and phones. It’s going to be the story of Qualcomm and automotive. We’re not just a company that is going to benefit from one trend, we’re going to benefit from all of it.

Is work from home helping business as people need to have more technology in their homes?

As you’re working from home, the home is now part of the enterprise. So what we see now is that a lot of people during the pandemic upgraded their broadband. The reality is people are building enterprise quality Wi-Fi networks in their home. Also you want to be connected in any part of your home, and that is driving a lot of Wi-Fi mesh.

One of your big hobbies is fixing old cars with no modern tech to speak of. What’s the appeal?

I love cars from the ’70s. I have two car restoration projects, and hopefully they will be done soon. I have memories of looking at ’70s muscle cars, and I really liked them. I guess that’s my midlife crisis.

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Get to know Amon:

  • He loves to fix classic cars and is currently working on a Chevrolet Opala (a car made specifically for Brazil, Amon’s country of origin).
  • A martial arts enthusiast, Amon practices Shotokan karate.
  • Amon has been with Qualcomm since 1995. He began as an engineer before taking on leadership positions that have involved spearheading Qualcomm’s 5G strategy, mapping out the company’s diversification into new industries like automotive, and making acquisitions in areas like networking.

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