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December 18, 2007

Qualcomm Purchases Noise-Reduction Company SoftMax

By Susan J. Campbell, TMCnet Contributing Editor

Qualcomm (News - Alert) plans to make a statement in the mobile device market in the future. To secure its strategy, the company on Monday purchased SoftMax, a provider of noise-reduction algorithms. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

SoftMax’s technology is designed to work with a variety of microphones to suppress the noise in the background. The company’s solution also separates the speaker’s voice from that noise and cancels all echoes.
These improvements in the voice quality ensure that voice calls are more intelligible. This quest for better sound was intensified recently as Motorola (News - Alert) delivered CrystalTalk. This new system has a similar aim and is available in its Razr2 line of phones.
Qualcomm is able to expand its toolset for with the SoftMax Signal Separation technology. The devices that can benefit include mobile phones, Bluetooth headsets, voice over Internet Protocol phones and notebooks. This technology is positioned as consuming less battery life, processing power and memory than alternatives.

To make this deal more interesting, SoftMax already has contracts with mobile operator SK Telecom (News - Alert) and with communications chip maker Broadcom. Qualcomm and Broadcom are in the middle of a fierce legal fight over various patents.

According to Forward Concepts analyst Will Strauss, Qualcomm’s strategy in this acquisition may be more than meets the eye. Strauss noted that Qualcomm may have pursued this acquisition as much for its engineers and intellectual property as for its current products.

Strauss may have been basing this assessment on Qualcomm’s purchase of Flarion earlier this year. The company purchased this wireless broadband vendor just for its team and OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiplex access) technology.

Flarion’s intellectual property is expected to be valuable as OFDMA technologies including WiMax and LTE (News - Alert) become widely adopted.

Strauss also noted that it would have been difficult to simply recruit top-notch talent in a field as obscure as noise reduction. Qualcomm is likely looking both to integrate SoftMax's algorithms in its own single-chip systems for devices and to license them to other hardware vendors.

SoftMax is a privately held company based in Qualcomm’s hometown of San Diego. It was founded in 1998 by scientists from the Salk Institute and from the University of California at San Diego, where Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs is a former professor and endowed the Jacobs School of Engineering in 1997.

Without focusing too heavily on exactly why Qualcomm is making these acquisitions, the reality is that the company is certainly expanding both its portfolio and its intellectual properties with these purchases. In a strategy focused on growth and market dominance, both are an important requirement.
Susan J. Campbell is a contributing editor for TMC (News - Alert) and has also written for eastbiz.com. To see more of her articles, please visit Susan J. Campbell’s columnist page.
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