Wall Street Journal: Apple’s 5G modem models are three years behind Qualcomm’s best chip

In the past few years, Apple has spent billions of dollars trying to develop its own modem chip to replace the Qualcomm modem chips it uses in iPhones, but a new chip is protected by a paywall. Wall Street Journal The report notes that Apple’s approach to the project was influenced by unrealistic goals, a poor understanding of the challenges involved, and completely unusable prototypes.

Apple’s plan to design its own in-house modem has led to the hiring of thousands of engineers: Apple acquired the majority of Intel’s smartphone modem business in 2019, and while filling the project’s ranks with Intel engineers and others hired from Qualcomm, company executives have set a goal of being The modem chip is ready for fall 2023.

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

However, “it quickly became clear to many of the project’s wireless experts that achieving the goal was impossible,” according to the report.

Obstacles to finishing the chip were “largely of Apple’s own making,” according to former company engineers and executives familiar with the project who spoke to Wall Street Journal. The teams working on the project have been slowed by technical challenges, poor communication and division among managers over the wisdom of trying to design chips rather than buy them.

From the report:

Apple planned to make its modem chip ready for use in new iPhone models. But tests conducted late last year found that the chip was extremely slow and prone to overheating. Its circuit board was so large that it could fit half an iPhone, making it unusable.

The teams were isolated into separate groups across the United States and abroad without a global leader. Some managers discouraged the broadcast of bad news about delays or setbacks by engineers, leading to unrealistic goals and delayed deadlines.

Apple’s ability to design its own microprocessors for the iPhone and iPad reportedly led the company to believe it could make modem chips. However, these chips transmit and receive wireless data from different types of wireless networks, and must comply with stringent connectivity standards to serve wireless carriers around the world, making them a significantly more difficult task.

“Just because Apple makes the best silicon on the planet, it’s ridiculous to think they can also build a modem,” said Jaydeep Ranade, Apple’s former wireless director, who left the company in 2018, the year the project began.

Executives reportedly understood the challenge better 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 its competitors, according to people familiar with the tests who spoke to Wall Street Journal.

Apple was forced to settle its lawsuit with Qualcomm, and has since used Qualcomm’s 5G modem chips for its latest iPhone‌ and iPad‌ lineups. For now, 2025 could be the earliest the technology finally advances enough for Apple to phase out Qualcomm, according to the report’s sources.

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“These delays indicate that Apple did not anticipate the complexity of the effort,” said Serge Willenegger, a former longtime Qualcomm executive. Wall Street Journal. “Cellular is a beast.” Emphasizing the importance of the setback suffered by Apple, the company last week extended its agreement to acquire modems from Qualcomm for another three years.

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