WSJ: Apple 5G modem prototypes are 'three years behind Qualcomm's best chip'

Tim Hardwick

Apple has spent billions of dollars over the past few years trying to develop its own modem chip to replace the Qualcomm modem chips it uses in the iPhone, but a new paid Wall Street Journal report suggests Apple's approach to the project had unrealistic goals, little understanding of the costs it faces challenges and completely unusable prototypes.

Apple's plan to develop its own modem led to hiring thousands of engineers: Apple acquired most of Intel's smartphone modem business in 2019 and filled the project's ranks with Intel engineers and others hired from Qualcomm. , company executives set a goal to have the modem chip ready by the fall of 2023.

The modem chip project was codenamed Sinope, after the nymph from Greek mythology who outwitted Zeus.

However, according to the report, “it soon became apparent to many wireless experts involved in the project that achieving the goal was impossible.”

The obstacles to completing the chip were: “largely proprietary an Apple development,” according to former engineers and company executives familiar with the project who spoke to the WSJ. The teams' work on the project was “slowed by technical problems, poor communication, and managers divided over whether to try to develop chips rather than buy them.”

From the report:

Apple planned to prepare its modem chip for use in new iPhone models. But tests late last year showed that the chip was too slow and prone to overheating. His circuit board was so large that it would take up half the iPhone, making it impossible to use.

The teams were divided into separate groups in the US and abroad without a global leader. Some managers disapproved of delivering bad news about delays or failures on the part of engineers, leading to unrealistic goals and missed deadlines.

Apple's ability to develop its own microprocessors for the iPhone and iPad has reportedly forced the company to think that it could create modem chips. However, such chips transmit and receive wireless data from various types of wireless networks and must meet stringent connectivity standards to serve wireless carriers around the world, making them significantly more challenging.

“Just because Apple makes the best silicon on the planet, it's ridiculous to think that they could also make a modem,” said former Apple wireless chief Jaydeep Ranade, who left the company in 2018, the year the project began.

Executives reportedly gained a better understanding of the problem after Apple tested its prototypes late last year. The results were so bad that the chips were “essentially three years behind Qualcomm's best modem chip,” and their use threatened to make the iPhone's wireless speeds slower than competitors, according to people familiar with the tests who spoke to WSJ.

Apple was forced to settle a lawsuit with Qualcomm and has since used Qualcomm 5G modem chips in its latest iPhone and iPad lines. According to sources in the report, 2025 could be the earliest the technology is finally mature enough for Apple to phase out Qualcomm.

“These delays indicate that Apple did not anticipate the complexity of the effort,” Serge Willenegger, a former longtime Qualcomm executive, told the WSJ. “Cellular is a monster.” Underscoring the significance of Apple's failure, the company last week extended its agreement to acquire modems from Qualcomm for another three years.

Tags: Wall Street Journal, Qualcomm, Apple vs. Qualcomm, Apple 5G modem[ 116 comments ]

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