Qualcomm buys noise-reduction company

Qualcomm has acquired SoftMax, a noise-reduction technology vendor.

Qualcomm made a clear statement about its vision for future mobile devices on Monday by buying SoftMax, a provider of noise-reduction algorithms.

SoftMax's technology works with multiple microphones to suppress background noise, separate the speaker's voice from that noise and cancel echoes, all to make voice calls more intelligible. The battle for better sound was stepped up recently when Motorola delivered a system called CrystalTalk, with a similar aim, in its Razr2 line of phones.

The SoftMax Signal Separation technology broadens Qualcomm's toolset for devices including mobile phones, Bluetooth headsets, voice over Internet Protocol phones and notebooks, according to a company statement. It consumes less battery life, processing power and memory than alternatives, the company said. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Qualcomm was not immediately able to provide more details of its plans for SoftMax.

SoftMax already has deals with mobile operator SK Telecom and with communications chip maker Broadcom, which is embroiled in a fierce legal battle with Qualcomm over various patents. Qualcomm may have acquired SoftMax as much for its engineers and intellectual property as for its current products, said analyst Will Strauss of Forward Concepts.

Similarly, Qualcomm acquired wireless broadband vendor Flarion last year just for its team and OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiplex access) technology, Strauss said. That company's intellectual property is expected to be valuable as OFDMA technologies including WiMax and LTE (Long-Term Evolution) become widely adopted. In addition, it would have been hard to simply recruit top-notch talent in a field as obscure as noise reduction, Strauss said. Qualcomm is probably looking both to integrate SoftMax's algorithms in its own single-chip systems for devices and to license them to other hardware vendors, Strauss said.

Privately held SoftMax is based in Qualcomm's hometown of San Diego and 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.

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