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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Creating an Ecosystem: The Lessons from BREW OS

What can BREW OS teach us about ecosystems? Qualcomm’s Steve Sprigg takes us on a trip down memory lane and gives us an insider view of the history of BREW OS and the lessons learned for Qualcomm.

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Imagine creating an operating system used on a billion devices and an app store serving millions of apps every day and then consciously making a decision to back away from driving the product. Sound far-fetched? That’s exactly what Qualcomm did when we made the decision to step back from aggressively pushing our BREW OS and app download business in favor of other emerging smartphone and tablet platforms.

To understand why we did that and why it was the right decision a bit of history is in order.

[tweetable]Unlike many legends, the story of how BREW OS was created is true[/tweetable]. The idea came during an informal whiteboard session with Dr. Paul Jacobs back in the late 1990s. Back then, Qualcomm was in the handset market as a means to jumpstart an ecosystem of devices using CDMA. But as we pushed wireless Internet access and new multimedia features, we found ourselves limited by the lack of a robust, efficient and secure operating system. I was also whining about the demise of the retail software industry. Our discussion brought both issues together and Paul mapped out a two phased strategy with an OS and SDK for app developers to get apps on our phones and subsequently drive an application download business.

The picture Paul drew quickly evolved into the now familiar “virtuous circle” with an ecosystem of partners including handset OEMs, wireless operators, application developers and Qualcomm. After a quick weekend trip to our small R&D lab in Scotts Valley, a lot of coffee and very little sleep, I returned to San Diego with a prototype of the OS. Over the next year we recruited some really smart folks, refined the platform and eventually downloaded our first application in December of 2000. A decade later BREW had been integrated into about a billion devices and helped to jumpstart an industry of developers leveraging a lot of cool new features exposed by our chipsets. Under the leadership of Paul and Peggy Johnson, we also assembled one of the finest, most driven and enthusiastic software teams in history. It’s also true that the name BREW came from a brainstorming session where we backed into “Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless” which was certainly more appropriate than some other combinations we threw out there.

So with all that success why did we make the tough decision to scale back? The answer lies in reminding ourselves of the original objectives behind the endeavor.

Qualcomm is a big believer in ecosystems. We believe that win-win scenarios produce the best opportunities and products. As we had done in the handset business, the purpose behind BREW was to link users to technology by creating an ecosystem of partners who all stood to benefit. But with the emergence of other smartphone operating systems, the need for us to drive our own OS ran counter to that philosophy.

Could we have won an OS war? From the perspective of an unabashedly biased leader on that team I believe so. Stretching back to our roots battling those who claimed CDMA defied the laws of physics, Qualcomm tends to attract people who just refuse to accept that things cannot be done. But we also continually reminded ourselves of the objective of driving ecosystems. Even as we developed BREW we put tremendous resource on facilitating the innovation of other operating systems. We actually had larger engineering teams working on those platforms than we did on BREW. As those platforms evolved we saw an even bigger ecosystem emerging and an opportunity to do even more than we could with our own OS.

In the end, the decision was not as tough as you might think. BREW OS had accomplished its goals. It had blazed the trail in creating an ecosystem linking the desktop application and wireless worlds. Now other platforms have emerged and Qualcomm is driving the most powerful and efficient chipsets across a broad ecosystem of carriers, device manufacturers, OS providers and app developers.

The lesson from BREW is one we routinely leverage at Qualcomm. When we achieve an objective we declare victory and ask our folks to go solve the next problem by defying the laws of physics…

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