The iPhone 15 presented last week did not receive a proprietary wireless modem, which Apple spent several years and billions of dollars developing – the company had to extend its agreement with Qualcomm. The Wall Street Journal reported on the details of the project.
Apple CEO Tim Cook ordered the development of a wireless modem—a chip that connects a smartphone to mobile networks—in 2018, and the company hired several thousand engineers to carry it out. The implementation of the project is necessary to put an end to Apple’s dependence on Qualcomm, which occupies a dominant position in the wireless modem market. The company’s own wireless communications platform was supposed to debut with the release of the iPhone 15, but tests conducted last year showed that the chip was too slow and prone to overheating. It would also take up half the space of the iPhone, making it completely unsuitable for practical use.
Last year alone, by some estimates, Apple paid Qualcomm $7.2 billion for wireless modems, and having its own chip would help the company save money. But its development was greatly complicated by a number of obstacles: technical difficulties, poorly organized interaction between departments, and even the actions of small managers, contrary to the general line, who were confident that purchasing modems was better than developing their own. Project staff worked in different departments in the United States and other countries without centralized leadership. And local managers did not want to report delays and technical failures to their superiors, which is why intermediate goals were unrealistic and deadlines were missed.
Apple didn’t expect that designing its own processor would be much easier than designing a modem. The wireless module must meet stringent connectivity standards to enable it to operate on carrier networks around the world. The project was codenamed Sinope in honor of the nymph Sinope from ancient Greek mythology who managed to outwit Zeus himself. Apple began working on its own modem in 2018, by which time its relationship with Qualcomm had deteriorated: the two companies accused each other of lying, stealing intellectual property and monopolizing the market.
Apple has poached engineers from Qualcomm before, but stepped up its efforts in March 2019. It announced a new engineering center in San Diego, where Qualcomm is headquartered, and planned to create 1,200 jobs there. But that same summer, Apple absorbed Intel’s wireless technology division, along with its core patent portfolio. The company’s management set a goal to develop a modem by the fall of 2023, but it soon became obvious that it was impossible to achieve it with the available resources. Apple discovered that the brute force method that worked when developing processors, involving several thousand engineers, is not applicable to creating a modem: if the processors run exclusively applications for the iPhone and Apple laptops, then the modem must work in 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G networks of operators around the world. the world, and these networks often have their own technological characteristics.
As a result, managers who had no experience with wireless technologies set unrealistic, aggressive deadlines. Engineers have built prototypes and verified that they are capable of operating on multiple carrier networks around the world. But after testing these chips last year, we finally realized the true extent of the problem. The chips were three years behind Qualcomm’s best, meaning their implementation would make wireless connectivity on the iPhone slower than the competition. Apple abandoned plans to use its own modem in the 2023 iPhone models, and then realized that it could not implement it a year later. The company was forced to enter into negotiations with Qualcomm to continue supplying wireless chips – the licensing agreement between the two companies expires in April 2025, but there is an opportunity to extend it for another two years. Apple still has the means and desire to continue working.
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