Apple's Quest For Modem Independence From Qualcomm Is Going Nowhere Fast

Apple continues to struggle to develop a modem chip for the iPhone to replace those it buys from Qualcomm, and it may not be ready by the time the current agreement between the two expires.

The ongoing saga over the Cupertino outfit's quest to become self-reliant in cellular silicon saw it extend its agreement with Qualcomm in September. Now Apple will use the smartphone chipmaker's Snapdragon 5G Modem RF Systems for smartphone launches in 2024, 2025, and 2026.

Earlier in the year, Apple was preparing internally produced cellular modem designs to be ready by the end of 2024 or early 2025, but the company is now likely to miss that goal, reports say.

According to Bloomberg, this means that availability of its home-baked silicon is unlikely before the end of 2025 or early 2026, which is the final year of Apple's extended agreement with Qualcomm, cutting it fine if the company wants to ensure it is production ready in time.

We asked Apple about the matter and will update this article if it responds.

It isn't clear what has led to the latest delays, but a report in the Wall Street Journal following the renewal of the agreement with Qualcomm claimed that Apple had simply underestimated the complexity of the task to design its own modem.

It's suggested that the company had been lulled by its success designing an Arm-based system-on-chip (SoC) to power iPhones that it thought it could easily repeat the feat with a cellular chip. But modems have to comply with numerous complex wireless specifications to connect seamlessly with different mobile networks around the world.

This is despite the iGiant swallowing Intel's 5G modem business back in 2019 after the chipmaker said it was exiting that sector. Apple picked up about 2,200 Intel workers plus intellectual property in that deal, valued at $1 billion.

Bloomberg noted that Apple also has to be careful not to infringe Qualcomm's patents, which may be slowing design efforts. In addition, the cellular standards themselves are a moving target as they continue to be developed and updated.

Qualcomm said during its earnings call for Q4 fiscal 2023 that it expected to supply some of Apple's modem chips during 2026, potentially amounting to a 20 percent share, but this could end up higher in light of the reported delays to Apple's silicon.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that Apple will eventually move to its own internally produced design as the company has a strategy of avoiding single vendor lock-in, IDC Associate Vice President Alejandro Cadenas previously told us.

Earlier expectations were that it would not take until 2026 to deliver the chip, but Apple would then have enough time to make sure their silicon was high enough quality. ®

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