Apple’s homemade modem is a huge challenge, but big rewards are at stake

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Apple’s move to make its own modems could revolutionize the way it manufactures mobile devices like the rumored Apple Glass, but only if it can match or exceed the performance of its existing modem supplier, Qualcomm.

After an unexpected settlement with Qualcomm in 2019 to end patent infringement lawsuits, Apple is a major customer of the modem maker’s products. However, with Apple working on its own modems, the days of using Qualcomm’s communications hardware are numbered.

In a Saturday profile of Apple’s fashion endeavors, Wall Street Journal outlines the challenge Apple faces in making modems good enough for Apple to use in place of Qualcomm’s version.

The rewards are many, including 5G in items like the MacBook Pro and extremely fast speeds for iPhones. For future hardware, augmented reality headsets and smart glasses could take advantage of the fast speeds, with the former needing high bandwidth but minimal latency to be worthwhile.

Apple’s work in the field has been supported by the acquisition of most of Intel’s smartphone modem business and the onboarding of some 2,200 engineers, but Apple continues to expand its talent pool in the field.

About 140 job openings at an Apple office in San Diego, Qualcomm’s hometown, revolve around the creation of mobile chips. Meanwhile, a satellite engineering firm in Irvine, California has about 20 similar job openings, possibly trying to persuade Broadcom employees to join the company.

According to current expectations, Apple will switch to its own modems from 2023, with TSMC expected to be the producer of the chips for the iPhone maker.

Making its own modem offers Apple benefits in a number of areas, including cost savings and a reduction in reliance on suppliers such as Qualcomm, with whom Apple has a tense relationship, CCS Insight senior research director Wayne Lam told the report.

The ability to tailor the modem to Apple’s intended purposes is also a great benefit, as it could modify the modem to work in specific ways for one product, but in others to be more effective for another product.

As for what this might look like, the report points to the impact of Apple Silicon, which involved high-powered chips that outperformed Intel’s alternatives. Lam offers the same kind of design improvements that could improve the connectivity of smaller devices like the Apple Watch.

However, Tantra Analyst founder Prakash Sangam points out that “in some ways a modem is more complex” than a processor like the M1, partly because of the complexity of dealing with many conditions that can affect a signal. This can make it harder for Apple to manufacture, increasing relative development time.

“If you put enough time, resources and money into it, it can be done,” says Sangam. “But whether they can do it in 2023, I don’t think anyone but Apple can say.”

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