Apple is going to launch a big offensive in microprocessors… and it’s an open secret

Apple has proven that it can design the “brains” of its devices. He is now set to take on a potentially even more difficult challenge: designing the chips that allow them to connect to the Internet.

In light of a series of decisions taken by the Cupertino giant, as well as signals from its suppliers, it now seems clear that it intends to embark on the development of modems for the iPhone, the ‘iPad and Apple Watch. If successful, it would allow him to envision a future where his smart glasses and augmented reality are always on, where more of his devices have their own connectivity to cellular networks, where Mac laptops are equipped with a 5G connection and where downloads and streaming would be faster than ever on its flagship iPhone.

But to get there, the company will have to succeed where other tech giants, including Intel, have failed. Apple needs to prove that it can not only design its own mobile modems, but also that it can make them good enough to justify abandoning the ones it currently uses — which for decades have been manufactured by Qualcomm, the world’s leading manufacturer of modem chips.

Applications such as full augmented reality — which superimposes computer-generated reality onto the real world and projects it before our eyes through smart glasses — will require ever-faster data transfer speeds and record latency. — a measure of the time it takes for a signal to make a round trip between a device and the Internet.

To achieve these blazing speeds, engineers, who have increased data transfer rates a hundredfold over the past decade, had to use unprecedented creativity, says Durga Malladi, head of 5G and mobile infrastructure at Qualcomm. This is done by ensuring that the phones remain almost the same size, and without a proportional increase in battery capacity, he adds.

Apple cleverly maintains secrecy about the details of its dedicated chip project — a mystery that also applies to much of its business — and almost never openly discusses its intentions. In one of his rare interviews — granted to my colleague Tim Higgins — Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware technologies and head of the chipset division, explained how the company developed the series’ microprocessors. A intended for its iPhone and the M series equipping its Macs, but refused to say anything about its future plans, in terms of modems as chips.

There are, however, many signals indicating the direction in which Apple is heading when it comes to modem chips. The company decided to acquire the majority of Intel’s smartphone modem business in 2019, and keep its 2,200 employees. Since then, it has continued to hire engineers with expertise in this area. The latter often work in additional offices located in the same cities as its partners and potential future competitors in the mobile technology segment.

“People often refer to how Apple developed its A-series chips and how quickly it was able to improve them, but in some ways a modem is more complex”

In San Diego, the birthplace of Qualcomm, Apple has launched a recruiting campaign for about 140 positions directly related to the development and integration of cellular modem chips. Same thing in Irvine (California), where the headquarters of Broadcom is located – which designs essential parts placed between the modem of a telephone and its antennas -, where the giant of Cupertino has, according to its own website of offers of employment, about twenty vacancies for its satellite engineering office.

Broadcom did not respond to our questions. Malladi and a Qualcomm spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s relationship with Apple.

Last November, Qualcomm’s chief financial officer said the company plans to provide 20% of the 5G modems used by Apple in its mobile devices in 2023, up from 100% today — the exception being the Apple Watch, which , since the Series 4 model, uses an Intel modem. While Apple may be planning to use another vendor’s 5G modems from 2023, analysts instead expect that to be the year it unveils its in-house designed modem.

As was the case with its decision to adopt its own processors for its iPhones and Macs, Apple could derive a number of advantages over its competitors by designing its chips for cellular connectivity.

Chief among them is cost, says Wayne Lam, senior research director at technology consultancy CCS Insight. According to a recent analysis detailing the price of components used in the latest iPhone SE — the first version of the brand’s most affordable smartphone to feature 5G — the chips that allow it to connect to cellular networks cost a total of as much, if not more, than those which constitute its “brain”, namely the A15 processor and the memory chips associated with it.

This is a departure from what has been the norm for decades for smartphones and other comparable mobile devices: typically, a product’s central processor was more sophisticated and more expensive than the parts to power it. operate in mobile mode.

This new equation would also allow Apple to free itself from relationships with suppliers which, whatever the advantages they have brought to it, have sometimes been a source of tension. In 2019, for example, the Cupertino giant had to pay around $4.5 billion to Qualcomm and commit to buying modems from it for several years to end a grueling legal battle over patent licensing rights.

Another major interest for Apple is that by integrating its own modems on the A-series chip that powers its phones, it would be able to modify them to make them faster, more efficient and better than what it is. possible to do with the current marriage between its own chips and those of Qualcomm, says Mr. Lam.

“Once the company has succeeded in perfecting the technology of its 5G modems in the iPhone, it will only have to reduce the size to, for example, integrate it into your Apple glasses”

To imagine what Apple could do with its own modems, it is worth looking at its history with its in-house chips. He started to design them with the A series that equip his phones. Then, his ability to make them more powerful allowed him to create the M series for the Mac. These chips are not only faster than the Intel chips they replaced, but they’re also less power-hungry, which has allowed Apple to remove fans from its laptops. Similarly, by creating its own modems, Apple could improve the connectivity of its smaller devices, such as its watch and possible future smart glasses, Lam said.

Mobile engineering is an arcane field that may put off novices, but its great technical complexity can be summed up in a single idea: the faster devices communicate with the Internet, the more important it is that their modem be physically close to the chips that run all apps and software on a phone, and is designed in conjunction with them.

Despite Apple’s considerable resources and the increase in the size of its teams of engineers specialized in mobile technologies, there is a problem that even the Cupertino giant could have difficulty overcoming: the time required to design, manufacture and then test a new modem, warns Prakash Sangam, founder of technology research and consulting firm Tantra Analyst, who was a wireless technology engineer at AT&T and chief marketing officer at Qualcomm.

“People often refer to how Apple developed its A-series chips and how quickly it was able to improve them, but in some ways a modem is more complex,” adds Sangam. Part of this complexity is because a modem has to deal with a wide variety of situations that could interfere with a signal, as Apple discovered the hard way during the infamous “Antennagate”, there are more ten years old.

“If you put enough time, resources and money into it, it’s doable,” adds Sangam. But, apart from Apple, I don’t think anyone is in a position to say whether this will be possible in 2023.”

Apple’s first home modem might not be best-in-class in terms of speed or capabilities. But the company has shown that it has the patience and the resources to continue to develop ever more efficient hardware, until it succeeds in developing devices that stand out enough from the competition to retain its customers. clients.

If the scenario repeats itself with modems, it could mean that future Apple devices will do things that simply aren’t possible with current pairings between its own chips and those designed by others. For example, cellular connectivity could be built into smaller devices — perhaps even AirPods — or more “real” augmented reality experiences than currently exist.

“As soon as the company has succeeded in perfecting the technology of its 5G modems in the iPhone, it will only have to reduce the size to, for example, integrate it into your Apple glasses”, concludes Mr. lam.

(Translated from the original English version by Grégoire Arnould)

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