Apple recently expanded its deal for Qualcomm modems despite years of efforts to develop its own; now we know why. According to a detailed report of the Wall Street JournalApple’s attempt to develop its own in-house 5G modem has been hampered by issues resulting from the iPhone maker’s underestimating the complexity and technical challenges of the task, and by a lack of global leadership to guide separate development groups. isolated in the US and abroad. .
Apple’s motivation for developing its own modems is reportedly two-fold. First, developing its own silicon had helped improve device performance and increase profit margins. Second, the company wanted to separate itself from Qualcomm, whom Apple sued in 2017 for excessive patent fees. “They hate Qualcomm’s guts,” says Edward Snyder, wireless industry expert and CEO of Charter Equity Research, in comments reported by the WSJ. After settling its dispute with Qualcomm in 2019, Apple quickly acquired Intel’s smartphone modem business, along with a few thousand engineers to help advance its development efforts.
Three years behind Qualcomm’s best modem chip
But building a 5G wireless modem that would also work well on the countless 2G, 3G, and 4G wireless frequencies in use around the world turned out to be much more complicated than expected, and the effort has been plagued by unrealistic goals and deadlines, reports the WSJ. The chip prototypes Apple tested last year were slow, “essentially three years behind Qualcomm’s best modem chip.”
Here is my favorite quote from WSJ report:
Apple discovered that employing the brute force of thousands of engineers, a successful strategy for designing the brains of its smartphones and laptops, was not enough to quickly produce a superior modem chip.
So instead of introducing custom Apple modems into this year’s iPhone as originally planned, Apple executives had to push the plans back to the 2024 models, until they realized that goal wasn’t possible either. That’s why Apple extended its modem deal with Qualcomm, which would have expired at the end of this year, just days before the iPhone 15 was announced.
And while some have praised Huawei’s HiSilicon chip design business for leapfrogging Apple with the apparent development of its own 5G modem in China’s Mate 60 Pro, Laboratory tests show that Huawei’s chips consume more power than the competition and cause the phone to “run hot”, which is bad for performance.
So yes, modems are hard.
Apple’s custom modem work continues and Bloomberg‘s Mark Gurman suggests we’ll likely see them rolled out gradually before the current deal with Qualcomm expires in 2026.