In the fiercely competitive world of tech, Apple’s ambitious attempt to develop its own in-house 5G modem has hit a roadblock. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal reveals that the tech giant’s endeavor has been hindered due to the underestimation of the complexity and technical challenges involved, along with a deficiency in global leadership to steer the separate development groups located in the US and overseas.
Apple’s drive to create its own modems stems from two primary reasons. Firstly, creating its own silicon could enhance device performance and boost profit margins. Secondly, the move was seen as a step towards breaking away from Qualcomm, a company Apple had a legal battle with in 2017 over what it deemed excessive patent fees. However, the journey so far has been far from smooth, with the prototype chips tested last year falling significantly short of Qualcomm’s best modem chip, setting Apple’s plans back by approximately three years.
Apple’s Struggle with 5G Modem Development
Apple recently extended its contract with Qualcomm for its modem needs, indicating a delay in the tech giant’s efforts to develop an in-house 5G modem. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, the delay stems from Apple underestimating the complexities and technical challenges of creating a 5G modem, coupled with a lack of global leadership coordinating the development teams spread across the US and abroad.
The Motivation Behind the Modem Development
Apple’s drive to create its own modems has two main reasons. The first is the company’s desire to enhance device performance and boost profit margins through the development of its own silicon. The second is a bid to break away from Qualcomm, a company that Apple sued in 2017 for what it viewed as excessive patent fees. Edward Snyder, a wireless industry expert and managing director of Charter Equity Research, commented on the strained relationship between the companies, stating, "They hate Qualcomm’s living guts." After settling the dispute with Qualcomm in 2019, Apple acquired Intel’s smartphone modem business and a team of engineers to further its development efforts.
Challenges in Modem Development
However, creating a 5G wireless modem that also efficiently works on the multitude of 2G, 3G, and 4G wireless frequencies proved to be more challenging than expected. The Wall Street Journal reported that the development process has been marred by overly ambitious goals and unrealistic deadlines. Prototype chips tested last year were found to be three years behind Qualcomm’s top modem chip in terms of performance. The report noted, "Apple found that employing the brute force of thousands of engineers, a strategy successful for designing the computer brain of its smartphones and laptops, wasn’t enough to quickly produce a superior modem chip."
Delayed Plans and Future Prospects
As a result of these challenges, Apple’s initial plan to introduce custom modems in this year’s iPhone was deferred to 2024. However, this target soon proved to be unachievable, prompting Apple to extend its modem deal with Qualcomm, which was set to expire at the end of this year. This extension happened just days before the announcement of the iPhone 15.
Despite the setbacks, Apple’s custom modem development continues. As Mark Gurman from Bloomberg suggests, it is likely that we will see the gradual rollout of these modems before the current Qualcomm contract ends in 2026.
Conclusion – The Complexity of Modem Development
This story highlights the complexities and challenges in modem development. It’s not just about having a capable team of engineers. It requires a deep understanding of the technicalities, realistic goal-setting, and effective global leadership. As Apple’s experience shows, even tech giants can stumble when venturing into uncharted territories of technology. However, with the continuation of their development efforts, there’s anticipation for what Apple might bring to the table in the coming years.