The market for 5G chipsets that connect smartphones to wireless networks was dramatically reshaped yesterday afternoon. Within a matter of hours, Apple and Qualcomm agreed to resolve their differences — at least for the time being — and Intel exited the 5G smartphone modem business for good.
When Apple and Qualcomm abruptly agreed to drop all ongoing litigation just as opening statements were underway for a major case in a federal courthouse in San Diego, all eyes turned to Intel, which has been lagging in 5G development. Although Apple isn’t expected to introduce a 5G-capable iPhone until 2020, its options for 5G chipsets were limited due to Intel’s developmental delays and a years-long battle with Qualcomm that left Apple with Intel as its only supplier.
With more than $8 billion in unpaid patent royalties on the line and set to be disputed in court, Qualcomm’s position was undoubtedly strengthened by Intel’s decision to leave the market entirely and take itself out of the running for Apple’s future 5G business. The announcements from three powerful tech companies appears to have been well coordinated and not coincidental. With Intel out of the 5G smartphone market, Qualcomm became, for all intents and purposes, Apple’s only option for a 5G chipset supplier.
“The end of the bitter licensing dispute between Qualcomm and Apple will have a significant impact on the burgeoning 5G market. Prior to this settlement, Apple was relying on Intel’s 5G modem to bring a 5G smartphone to market. It was questionable whether Apple would have been able to achieve this by 2020, and this is confirmed by the fact that Intel immediately announced its intention to exit the 5G modem market,” Lynnette Luna, principal technology analyst at GlobalData, wrote in a note following the flurry of news.
6-Year Licensing Deal
As part of the settlement, Apple agreed to pay Qualcomm an undisclosed amount and inked a 6-year license deal with Qualcomm. The deal also involves Apple’s contract manufacturers, which Apple directed to stop making payments to Qualcomm.
While Apple retreated from a legal battle of its own making, Intel’s news is very much an admission of defeat. “We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” Intel CEO Bob Swan said in a prepared statement.
Intel began supplying chipsets for iPhones in 2016, but became its exclusive supplier more recently as Apple’s legal battle with Qualcomm raged on. While the new agreement brings some security to Apple’s supply chain, the iPhone maker has also been hiring and conducting research to eventually develop its own cellular chipsets in house. That effort is still underway, but with Intel dropping out of the market, some industry watchers are speculating that Apple could acquire some of Intel’s talent and intellectual property (IP) to move more quickly in that direction.
iPhone’s 5G Future
“The iPhone has tremendous clout in the wireless market. Once Apple bets on a new technology, it has the market power to move that technology forward and that is definitely the case for 5G; the industry needs a 5G-enabled iPhone to achieve growth in 2020,” Luna wrote. “It’s not until 2020 that we will see 5G networks having more widespread availability and improved 5G smartphone silicon. This will be the right timing for Apple to enter the market as the company likes to see some momentum behind a particular technology rather than being the first to adopt it.”
Malik Saadi, vice president of strategic technologies at ABI Research, framed the agreement as a win for mobile technology innovation. “The IP settlement between Apple and Qualcomm is a clear admission by Apple that Qualcomm is an unavoidable partner when it comes to 5G mobile innovation,” he wrote in a research note.
“Qualcomm could potentially be again the sole modem supplier for iPhones,” and that prospect sets Qualcomm up to be the “largest supplier of 5G mobile modems by far,” Saadi explained. “The company may face a certain level of competition from captive vendors such as Huawei or Samsung, but this will be limited and confined.” The agreement also places new pressure on Qualcomm to succeed where Intel failed by enabling Apple to bring a 5G-capable iPhone to market in 2020, according to Saadi.
In a televised interview with CNBC, Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf said the agreement with Apple is the “first direct license” the companies have had. He declined to say how much Apple paid Qualcomm to resolve the dispute and didn’t put a number on royalty payments going forward, but all signs point to rapid development around 5G.
“We’re very happy to have an ability to move forward. By the way, we wouldn’t sign a deal if we didn’t think it was good for us. And I’m sure it’s the same way on their side,” he said. “We obviously want to work together on products. … The clear focus is let’s get the products together. We have a long history of working together on products and we’re excited to do it again.”