Despite its fierce legal battle with Apple, Qualcomm was hoping that the iPhone maker would start using its modems in iPhones once again. But that looks increasingly unlikely. Mark Gurman of Bloomberg reports that Apple is “aggressively” trying to poach Qualcomm engineers, most likely to design radio chips for the future iPhones. Apple has posted as many as 10 job listings on its website for chip design-related positions.
Why Apple might be interested in Qualcomm engineers
Gurman noted that all the new positions are located in San Diego, right in the backyard of Qualcomm. Apple began using Qualcomm modems in iPhones in 2011, but it started sourcing modems from Intel as well in 2017. As the legal fight between Qualcomm and Apple intensified, the Cupertino company entirely ditched Qualcomm and chose Intel as the sole supplier. Modems enable a smartphone to connect with cellular towers and support WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity.
It’s the first time Apple is “publicly recruiting” for these types of roles in San Diego, the hotbed for chip design. The location of new positions suggests that Apple is clearly eyeing to recruit Qualcomm engineers for these roles. Until now, most of Apple’s chip design efforts have been concentrated around its Cupertino headquarters. The job listings reveal the engineers will be working on a variety of chip components including wireless chips and the Neural Engine AI processor.
Apple already has chip designing facilities in multiple locations. Most of them are located close to the campuses of other major chipmakers to poach their talent. Given Intel’s modems are not as good as Qualcomm’s, Apple has strong reasons to poach Qualcomm engineers to strengthen its in-house chip-designing efforts. The Cupertino company has a strong and growing chip development arm.
It’s not yet known whether the iPhone maker has already opened an office in the backyard of Qualcomm to house the new engineering talent. Apple could also place them in offices it acquired through the purchase of AI startup Emotient and Shazam. The company is said to be hiring engineers with expertise in LTE, Bluetooth as well as new technologies such as millimeter wave (mmWave) and 5G connectivity.
Apple reducing its reliance on external chipmakers
Apple already uses its in-house wireless chips in the Apple Watch and AirPods, but it still relies on others for wireless modems in iPhones. The tech giant’s attempt to poach Qualcomm engineers is a strong indication that it wants to reduce its reliance on other chipmakers. It already uses its own chips for specific functions such as security on Mac computers. According to the rumor mill, Apple plans to replace Intel processors in Macs starting as early as 2020.
The relations between Apple and Qualcomm turned sour when the iPhone maker sued Qualcomm for $1 billion and accused it of charging unfair royalties for “technologies they have nothing to do with.” Since then, the two companies have slapped several lawsuits against each other. Apple had stopped paying licensing fees to Qualcomm.
The chipmaker used to sell chips to Apple, but would also charge a royalty fee for a license to use the technology. Apple described it as “double-dipping.” The Cupertino company was also not happy with the fact that Qualcomm was charging licensing fees as a percentage of the cost of the iPhone.
Even though Apple is trying to poach Qualcomm engineers, it will likely be relying on Intel modems for the next couple of years. Qualcomm has developed its first 5G Snapdragon X50 modem and partnered with nearly 20 Android vendors to bring 5G phones to the market next year. Intel’s first 5G modem XMM 8060 had encountered many problems including overheating. So, it’s now working on the second-generation XMM 8160, which will become available to smartphone vendors for testing in the second half of 2019.
The first phones featuring Intel’s 5G modem won’t arrive until 2020. It means we will see a bunch of 5G Android phones next year, but Apple won’t be able to launch the 5G iPhone until 2020. Carriers in many countries including the US will start rolling out 5G services in the first half of 2019.