Apple’s not-so-secret plan to take another gigantic bite out of the chip market

A series of moves from the tech giant, along with signals from its suppliers, make it clear that it’s aiming to start designing the modems for the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. It could enable a future of always-on smart glasses and augmented reality, more wearables with their own independent connection to cellular networks, Mac laptops with 5G connectivity, and faster-than-ever downloads and streaming on its Flagship iPhones.

But first, the company must accomplish something that has defeated other tech giants, including Intel: it must show that not only can it design its own wireless modems, but it can make them sufficiently good ones to justify moving away from the ones Apple uses now. , which are made by Qualcomm, for decades the world’s leading modem chipmaker.

Applications such as full augmented reality – superimposing computer-generated reality on top of the real world and projecting it into our eyes through smart glasses – will require faster-than-ever data transfer rates and lower latency than ever before. ever, which is a measure of how long it takes for a signal to travel from a device to the Internet and back.

Achieving these blazing-fast speeds has placed unprecedented demands on the creativity of engineers, who have increased peak data transfer rates 100-fold over the past 10 years, says Durga Malladi, head of 5G and mobile infrastructure at Qualcomm. And all of this had to happen while keeping the phones more or less the same size, and without requiring a comparable increase in battery capacity, he adds.

Apple keeps the details of its chip operation, like much of the rest of its business, closely guarded secrets, and says almost nothing publicly about its aspirations. In a rare interview with my colleague Tim Higgins, Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware technologies and head of its chip division, explained how he developed the iPhone A-series and M-series microprocessors for Mac. , but declined to say anything about future plans, for modems or any other chips.

There are, however, many signs indicating where Apple is heading on modem chips. The company agreed in 2019 to acquire the majority of Intel’s smartphone modem business, including 2,200 employees, and since then has continued to hire engineers with related expertise, often in satellite offices in the same cities as its occasional partners and possible future wireless competitors. Technology.

In San Diego, Qualcomm’s hometown, Apple offers approximately 140 positions directly related to the development and integration of cellular modem chips. In Irvine, Calif., home of Broadcom, which designs critical parts between a phone’s modem and its antennas, Apple has a satellite engineering office and, according to its own website, jobs, about 20 vacancies.

Broadcom did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Malladi and a Qualcomm spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s relationship with Apple.

In November 2021, Qualcomm’s chief financial officer said the company plans to supply 20% of the 5G modems that Apple uses in its mobile devices in 2023. Currently, Qualcomm supplies almost 100% of these chips. (The exception is the Apple Watch, which since the Series 4 model has used an Intel modem.) While Apple may consider using another vendor’s 5G modems from 2023, analysts expect this to be the year it reveals its own Apple-designed modem.

As was the case with Apple’s move to its own processors for iPhone and Mac, designing its own chips for cellular connectivity could give the company a number of advantages over competitors.

The first is cost, says Wayne Lam, senior director of research at technology consultancy CCS Insight. According to a recent material cost analysis of the latest iPhone SE, the first version of the more affordable iPhone model with 5G capability, the chips that allow the phone to connect to cellular networks collectively cost as much or more than the chips that make up the “brain” of the phone: the A15 processor and its associated memory chips.

It’s a reversal of what has been the norm for decades in smartphones and similar mobile devices: typically, the device’s main processor is more complicated and more expensive than the parts that enable it to communicate wirelessly. .

It will also free Apple from supplier relationships which, regardless of the benefits they have provided, have sometimes been a source of tension. In 2019, for example, Apple settled a contentious court battle with Qualcomm over patent licensing fees, agreeing to pay at least $4.5 billion and buy Qualcomm’s modems for several years.

Another big advantage that Apple could gain is that by integrating its own modems on the same A-series chip that powers its phones, it could modify them in ways that make them faster, more efficient and more capable than what is possible with its current combination of its own and Qualcomm’s chips, says Lam.

Thinking about what Apple could do with its own modems, it’s worth looking at its history with its own chips. Apple started its journey of designing its own chips with the A-series that goes into its phones. His ability to make them more powerful is the reason he was able to create the M-series for Mac. These are not only faster than the Intel-based ones they replaced, but also consume less power, allowing Apple to eliminate fans in its laptops. Similarly, by creating its own modems, it could improve connectivity for smaller devices, like its watch and potential future smart glasses, Lam says.

Wireless engineering is not for the faint of heart, but for boiling down a mountain of technical detail into one idea: the faster mobile devices communicate with the internet, the more important it is that a device’s modem is physically adjacent. and designed in concert with, the chips that run all apps and other software on a phone.

Despite Apple’s enormous resources and growing army of wireless engineers, one thing even the Cupertino giant may find difficult to overcome is the time it takes to design, manufacture and then test a new wireless modem, says Prakash Sangam, founder of technology research and consulting firm Tantra Analyst and former wireless engineer at AT&T and chief marketing officer at Qualcomm.

“People often compare how Apple developed their A-series chipsets on their own and how quickly they were able to up their game, but in some ways a modem is more complex,” Sangam says. This complexity is partly due to the fact that a modem has to deal with such a variety of circumstances that can interfere with a signal, as Apple discovered during its infamous “Antennagate” episode over a decade ago.

“If you put enough time, resources and money into it, it can be done,” he adds. “But if they can do it by 2023, I don’t think anyone other than Apple can tell.”

Apple’s first home modem may not be best-in-class in terms of speed or capabilities. But the company has demonstrated that it has the patience and the resources to keep pushing out better and better hardware, until it can create devices that are different enough from those of its competitors to retain customers.

If the same is true for modems, it could mean that future Apple devices will do things that simply aren’t possible with Apple’s current combinations of its own and others’ chips. These could include building cellular connectivity into smaller devices — maybe even AirPods — or augmented reality experiences that feel more real than is currently possible.

“Once Apple can perfect the 5G modem technology in the iPhone, all they have to do is reduce that technology to a chipset that fits, say, your Apple Glasses,” says Mr Lam.

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