As rumored many months ago, Apple’s silicon ambitions don’t end with replacing Intel CPUs with its own in Macs—it plans to ditch Qualcomm modems in favor of its own custom-designed chips for iPhones, according to Apple hardware tech lead Johny Srouji.
Srouji confirmed the company’s plans when speaking to employees during an internal town hall meeting, as reported by Bloomberg today. Apple acquired Intel’s 5G smartphone modem business last summer. That acquisition of Intel’s intellectual property and resources was key for Apple’s new efforts.
Quoted in the Bloomberg story, Srouji told Apple employees:
This year, we kicked off the development of our first internal cellular modem which will enable another key strategic transition… Long-term strategic investments like these are a critical part of enabling our products and making sure we have a rich pipeline of innovative technologies for our future.
Apple introduced 5G modems for the first time this year in its iPhone 12 lineup, but the phones use modems made by Qualcomm. When Apple completes its work on its own modems, it is likely to drop the Qualcomm modems from most or all of its phones. Qualcomm shares fell in value after the Bloomberg report ran.
However, the report notes that “a 2019 patent agreement between Apple and Qualcomm includes a six-year licensing pact,” and that “Qualcomm charges license fees to phone makers based on wireless patents it owns, regardless of whether they use its chips or not.”
In any case, this news is a confirmation of suspicions long held by close observers of Apple. As if the Intel modem business acquisition wasn’t a big enough clue, Apple was also in 2018 visibly and publicly ramping up its staff in an office in San Diego that is located close to Qualcomm’s offices there. As we noted when we covered Apple’s hiring sprees two years ago, the San Diego office appears all but designed to poach skilled engineers from Qualcomm and the smaller San Diego-based firms in its orbit to work on modem technologies.
In 2019, Apple confirmed plans to open a second major San Diego campus. Further, Apple has been listing numerous opportunities related to modems on its jobs portal for a couple of years now. The report today says that Apple has people working on the new modems in San Diego, Cupertino, and Europe.
It is unknown when Apple might add these new modems to its phones, but we can easily speculate as to what its priorities might be. Our iPhone 12 review (and the reviews at other publications) pointed out that the new iPhones take a dramatic hit to battery life when browsing in 5G. Apple may hope that it can produce more efficient alternatives that are more tightly integrated with the other technologies in its phones, in one possible focus.