Just the other day, we showed you a tweet from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, known worldwide as the most forward-thinking Apple analyst. That’s what the tweet indicated Apple’s plan to develop its own 5G modem chip for the iPhone, which would of course be built by TSMC, fell through. Apple’s plan to equip 80% of its phones with an Apple 5G modem chip by 2023 (leaving Qualcomm a 20% share) had failed.
Apple’s progress in developing its own 5G smartphone modem is hampered by two Qualcomm patents
Qualcomm will now supply Apple with 100% of the 5G modems for the 2023 iPhone 15 lineup, leaving Apple with a bad taste in its mouth. Remember Apple paid $1 billion to buy Intel’s smartphone modem business. There was speculation that after Apple reached an agreement with Qualcomm that allowed it to drop all legal action between the two, it would use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 5G modem chips for a few years while it developed its internal component.
Last November the air was full of it Apple would unveil its own 5G modem chip, which would be built by TSMC using its 4nm process node. The lower the process node number, the greater the transistor count of the chip, making the chip more powerful and more energy efficient. Apple has been trying to reduce its reliance on Qualcomm, and Kuo said Apple will continue to work on developing its own modem chip.
Corresponding 9to5Mac, Apple’s failure to develop its own 5G modem chip, was not the result of Apple’s inability to develop such a component. Instead, a new report suggests the issue is linked to two Qualcomm patents that are preventing Apple from completing development of its own 5G modem. This could be related to a Supreme Court ruling announced this week, in which the court said it would not hear an appeal from the iPhone maker trying to get a couple of Qualcomm patents revoked.
Florian Mueller, writing for Foss Patents (via Apparently Apple) brings this all together and even goes back to the Apple-Qualcomm comparison mentioned above to explain that Apple saw Qualcomm as the only reliable 5G smartphone modem vendor and felt that Intel was on the was wrong way. As a result, Apple agreed to the settlement in desperation, knowing it would need a steady supply of 5G modem chips from Qualcomm before it could develop its own.
A few months before announcing the Qualcomm settlement, Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNBC, “The problem we have with Qualcomm is that they have a no-license, no-chip policy. This is illegal in our view. And second, they are required to offer their patent portfolio on a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory basis, and they don’t. They charge exorbitant prices.”
Apple needs to circumvent Qualcomm’s current patents
Cook said that Apple will fight Qualcomm to the end. But you can sense almost the same desperation Cook felt when it became clear that kowtowing to Qualcomm was his best course of action. And last March, the FTC refused to label Qualcomm’s despised “no license, no chips” policy as anticompetitive.
Some legal experts believe that future lawsuits launched by Apple are unlikely to succeed. This puts Apple in a difficult position. It might license the patents, but Qualcomm isn’t known as the Walmart of intellectual property. In fact, as Tim Cook noted, it’s notorious for charging high prices even for standard essential patents (SEPs). These are patents issued for patents that cover industry standards needed to build a specific product. These patents should be offered at a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) price.
Regardless of a deal with Qualcomm, Apple will no doubt continue to try to build its 5G smartphone modem around Qualcomm’s patents, although the crew appears to be stuck in Cupertino until that happens.