“If you’re going to bring a device in 2020, you’re definitely going to be late for 5G,” Qualcomm’s Jim Tran had said at CES in January. Many argued this was a subtle jibe at Apple. The Cupertino major had no concrete plans to launch a 5G-ready iPhone until January – it is still holding its cards close to the chest. We do not know when Apple will launch a 5G-ready iPhone – but we now know a 5G-ready iPhone might just be around the corner anytime soon. No, possibly not in 2019, but the 2020 iPhones could support 5G connectivity. Because they ought to.
In a surprising turn of events, Apple and Qualcomm have reached a settlement, ending two years of legal dispute. “The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm,” and in the aftermath, the two companies have reached “a six-year license agreement, effective as of April 1, 2019, including a two-year option to extend, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.”
Did Apple just bend the knee to Qualcomm? After years of fighting Qualcomm, alleging that the chip-maker was (mis)using its dominant position in the market to charge exorbitant fees for its tech – modem and rest – Apple just gave in. Hours later, Intel came up and announced, it was quitting the 5G modem market for smartphones – it was supposed to be making one for Apple. That’s when things started to get clearer.
The future of the iPhone was in jeopardy. At a time when arch rivals Samsung (world number 1) and Huawei (world number 3) had already boarded the 5G bandwagon, Apple was tottering. It had two options – play the stubborn card and let things go the way they were or step up and do what any trillion-dollar company would do. The former wasn’t really an option though - iPhone sales are at an all-time low. But we’ve seen legacy brands going down that road of self-destruction before, which is why I put it up there. Luckily for many Apple loyalists, Apple chose the latter.
The iPhone can’t be a flagship product with yesterday’s tech – it needs to be future-proof
It chose to compromise. Because it had no choice, but more because, Apple is one of the few tech companies with a long-term vision. Apple is a tech company that wants to be there for years and years from now, and it can’t be there without its flagship product – the iPhone.
And the iPhone can’t be a flagship product with yesterday’s tech – it needs to be future-proof. Like it has always been. But over the last couple of years, the momentum has shifted – rivals have caught on, and in some cases, they’ve even beaten Apple. 5G is a classic example. Even though 5G is still in nascent stage, it won’t be long before it becomes the gold standard – it will be the gold standard in the days to come. Apple might not have been there at the start, but it would most definitely want to be there soon enough.
Which is where it would require Qualcomm’s technical expertise – the settlement gives Apple just the right amount of ammo to kickstart the proceedings. At least, until the time it readies its own 5G modem.
It’s no secret that Apple is getting serious about building its own modem. After years of reliance on Qualcomm and then Intel, Apple has finally started ramping up its in-house modem chip engineering efforts by reallocating its resources into its hardware technology division under the stewardship of Johny Srouji. Previously, all this was part of Apple’s supply chain unit.
Srouji joined Apple in 2008 and has since been leading Cupertino’s chip design efforts. Srouji is notably the face behind Apple’s home-grown A-series processors that power the company’s iPhones as well as iPads, as well as the custom chip inside its truly wireless AirPods. He has been leading the company’s modem chip designing efforts since January, according to a Reuters report.
Moreover, Apple also seems to be on a hiring spree for modem engineers in Qualcomm’s backyard, San Diego.
Apple might have started getting serious about building its own modem but going by its penchant for quality, it would be sometime before we start seeing something constructive from the company. Apple is known to take its time at doing things on its own terms and conditions focusing on quality rather than on quantity. It might not be the first to do things but as and when it does, it is usually expected the finished product would speak for itself.
Qualcomm holds the edge when it comes to patents, and Apple will really have to go the extra mile to stand apart – as it would. But for now and until then, bending the knee doesn’t seem like a bad idea.