clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Circuit Breaker

Looks like Apple’s making its own modem to compete with Qualcomm

New, 46 comments

Apple may be leaving Intel behind in search of better performance

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Apple is apparently working on its own, in-house developed modem to allow it to better compete with Qualcomm, according to several new Apple job listings that task engineers to design and develop a layer 1 cellular PHY chip — implying that the company is working on actual, physical networking hardware. Two of the job posts are explicitly to hire a pair of cellular modem systems architects, one in Santa Clara and one in San Diego, home of Qualcomm. That’s alongside several other job postings Apple has listed in San Diego for RF design engineers.

The Information, which spotted the first job posting, cites sources that go a step further, claiming that Apple is not only potentially working to develop its own modem, but is in fact specifically targeting it for use in future iPhones, with the company looking to leave longtime partner Intel behind in favor of its own, in-house solution.

According to The Information’s report, the new modem would still be years away, with even Apple’s purported 5G iPhone slated for 2020 using Intel’s in-development 5G modem instead. It makes sense logically, too — if Apple is only just starting to hire now, it’ll take at least a few years before it’ll actually be ready to ship hardware. But the move would have big ramifications for the mobile space, particularly for Qualcomm and Intel, two of the biggest modem suppliers in the world.

Historically, Apple has used a mix of Qualcomm and Intel modems in its devices, but the two companies have been on the outs since the beginning of 2017, when Apple sued Qualcomm over anti-competitive prices, accusing the modem supplier of overcharging it. That set off the current ongoing fight between Apple and Qualcomm, which has seen the iPhone maker abandon Qualcomm’s chips in favor of only using Intel modems for the iPhone XS and XR, and Qualcomm’s own attempt to try to ban Apple’s iPhones from being sold in the US and China.

The problem for Apple, though, is that it can choose to use Intel’s modems, but when it comes down to hard numbers, Intel simply hasn’t been keeping up performance-wise compared to Qualcomm’s modems. A recent analysis of Ookla speed tests found that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 offered dramatically better speeds than devices with Intel modems. It wasn’t a small gap either — the results (admittedly, collected from Ookla by Qualcomm) saw 40 percent faster download speeds and 20 percent faster uploads for Qualcomm modems compared to Intel ones. And among the more tech savvy, intentionally buying the Qualcomm variant of the iPhone over the Intel modem version (back in earlier hardware generations when the choice was still there) was seen as the way to go.

Apple has long been developing its own mobile processors for its iPhone and iPad devices with its A-series chips — branching out into a custom-built modem, where it can further control the specific hardware for its devices, could offer similar success to the performance Apple has already achieved with its computational silicon. It’d also mirror similar moves from competitors like Samsung and Huawei, who also use their own in-house modem and processor stacks for a cohesive hardware experience, albeit in phones that are only available in the US through imports, for now.