Qualcomm will promote COO to replace Paul Jacobs as CEO

The move comes hours after reports that Microsoft was considering Qualcomm COO Steve Mollenkopf as a possible replacement for Steve Ballmer

Chip maker Qualcomm will promote current COO Steve Mollenkopf to the role of CEO next year. He will replace CEO Paul Jacobs, son of one of the company's founders, Irwin Jacobs, the company said Friday.

The move comes hours after Bloomberg, quoting anonymous sources, reported that Microsoft's board was considering Mollenkopf as a replacement for its CEO Steve Ballmer. Were Mollenkopf to end up at Microsoft, he would find himself both a customer of his former employer, and embroiled in a number of patent lawsuits with it.

Mollenkopf is a 20-year veteran at Qualcomm, having previously run the company's chipset business during its 2011 acquisition of wireless networking chip maker Atheros for US$3.1 billion. He will take over on March 4, following the company's shareholder meeting.

Jacobs, 51, currently CEO and chairman, will stay on with the company in the new role of executive chairman to provide guidance and leadership, the board said. In a statement, it thanked him for his strategic vision over his nine years as CEO during which, it said, the company's market capitalization doubled and its revenue quadrupled.

The board said the appointment would ensure continuity for the company, although given Jacobs' relative youth, the move may be more about retaining Mollenkopf than preparing for Jacobs' departure: Jacobs' father Irwin stayed on as chairman of Qualcomm into his seventies. Jacobs has no health problems shareholders and customers should be aware of, a Qualcomm spokeswoman said, adding that the company would make no comment on the timing of its announcement relative to the report linking Mollenkopf to Microsoft.

While the timing of the announcement is interesting, Mollenkopf's new role is consistent with how Qualcomm promotes at the senior level, according to Francis Sideco, senior director for communications technology at analyst firm IHS. "Their pattern has been to promote senior leadership from within," he said.

Sideco expects Jacobs to retain influence over the company's direction, but sees the move more as a division of labor, with Mollenkopf the typical CEO, selling the company to Wall Street and setting the strategy, while Jacobs takes on more of the technology side, including finding new markets for the company's technology. "As Qualcomm expands, that division of labor becomes more required," Sideco said.

Qualcomm was one of the first companies to push the CDMA mobile technology, for which its founders helped lay the technical foundations, and in recent years has made a name for itself as a designer of mobile phone processors such as the Snapdragon range found in Motorola's Moto G and Nokia's Lumia 1520: Market leaders Apple and Samsung Electronics design their own smartphone processors.

Relations between Qualcomm and some of its customers are a little strained, however. Qualcomm is an investor in a company suing mobile phone manufacturers including Nokia and Motorola for alleged patent infringement, while Nokia is suing Qualcomm customer HTC in another chip patent dispute.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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