Apple’s Attempt to Develop In-House 5G Modem Faces Challenges
Apple recently extended its deal with Qualcomm for modems, despite years of effort to develop its own. A detailed report from the Wall Street Journal sheds light on why Apple’s attempt to develop its own in-house 5G modem has been unsuccessful so far.
According to the report, Apple underestimated the complexity and technical challenges involved in developing a 5G modem. Additionally, a lack of global leadership to guide the separate development groups in the US and abroad has also hindered progress.
There were two main motivations for Apple to develop its own modems. First, it aimed to improve device performance and increase profit margins by developing its own silicon. Second, the company wanted to break away from Qualcomm, with whom it had a legal dispute over excessive patent fees in 2017.
After settling the dispute with Qualcomm in 2019, Apple acquired Intel’s smartphone modem business and brought in several thousand engineers to help advance its development efforts.
However, building a 5G wireless modem that works well on various wireless frequencies used worldwide turned out to be more challenging than expected. The prototype chips Apple tested last year were reportedly “essentially three years behind Qualcomm’s best modem chip.”
Interestingly, Apple found that employing 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. This realization led to Apple pushing back its plans to introduce custom modems in this year’s iPhone models to 2024. Eventually, it became evident that even that timeline wasn’t feasible.
As a result, Apple extended its modem deal with Qualcomm, which was set to expire at the end of this year, just days before the announcement of the iPhone 15.
While some have praised Huawei’s HiSilicon chip design business for apparently developing its own 5G modem in China’s Mate 60 Pro before Apple, lab tests indicate that Huawei’s chips consume more power and cause the phone to heat up, negatively impacting performance.
The report highlights the challenges involved in modem development and emphasizes that it is a complex task. Apple’s custom modem work is ongoing, and it is expected that we will see gradual rollouts of their own modems before the current Qualcomm deal expires in 2026.
In the highly competitive smartphone market, having control over critical components like modems is crucial. Apple’s continued efforts to develop its own modems demonstrate its determination to reduce reliance on external suppliers and maintain its position at the forefront of technological innovation.