Apple’s ambitious plan to develop its own modem chip for iPhones has hit numerous roadblocks, according to a paywalled report from The Wall Street Journal. The report suggests that Apple’s approach to the project has been plagued by unrealistic goals, a lack of understanding of the challenges involved, and unusable prototypes.
In an effort to design its own modem chip, Apple acquired a large portion of Intel’s smartphone modem business in 2019. Thousands of engineers were hired, including former Intel engineers and Qualcomm hires. The company set a goal to have the modem chip ready for fall 2023, codenamed Sinope after the nymph in Greek mythology.
However, the report reveals that meeting this goal became impossible due to obstacles that were largely of Apple’s own making. Technical challenges, poor communication, and disagreements among managers on whether to design the chips or buy them slowed down the project. Tests conducted last year found that the chip was too slow and prone to overheating, with a circuit board that was too large, making it unusable.
Teams working on the project were siloed and lacked a global leader, which hindered collaboration and exacerbated delays. Some managers discouraged engineers from sharing bad news about setbacks and delays, leading to unrealistic goals and blown deadlines.
Apple’s success in designing its own microprocessors for iPhones and iPads may have influenced the decision to take on the challenge of building modem chips. However, designing modem chips is a significantly more complex undertaking, as they must comply with strict connectivity standards and work with various wireless networks worldwide.
The deficiencies of Apple’s prototypes became evident after testing them late last year. According to sources, the chips were three years behind Qualcomm’s best modem chip and would have made iPhone wireless speeds slower than competitors. This prompted Apple to settle its lawsuit with Qualcomm and use Qualcomm’s 5G modem chips for its latest iPhone and iPad lineups. The report suggests that Apple may not be able to phase out Qualcomm until 2025 when the technology is more advanced.
The setbacks faced by Apple highlight the complexity of developing modem chips. “Cellular is a monster,” says former Qualcomm executive Serge Willenegger. As a result of these delays, Apple recently extended its agreement with Qualcomm to obtain modems for three more years.
In conclusion, Apple’s endeavor to develop its own modem chip has encountered significant challenges, resulting in delays and the use of Qualcomm’s chips. The report underscores the intricacies involved in designing modem chips, indicating that Apple underestimated the difficulty of the task. It remains to be seen if Apple will eventually succeed in creating its own modem chips or continue relying on external suppliers.