Custom iPhone baseband chips seen as too 'herculean' a task for Apple to tackle in-house

Posted:
in iPhone edited April 2014
With recent rumors and hires suggesting Apple may be planning to build its own custom baseband chips for future iPhones, moving away from off-the-shelf silicon from companies like Qualcomm, one analyst thinks it's a highly unlikely route for Apple to take given the time it would have to invest.


iPhone 5s logic board with Qualcomm baseband chipset. | Source: iFixit


Analyst Brian Modoff with Deutsche Bank issued a note to investors on Monday in which he said the issue in developing a multimode baseband from scratch is not dollars, but rather the the time necessary. He estimates it would take at least five years for top-tier talent and about 1,000 total engineers to develop a custom baseband, and he doesn't see Apple taking on that "herculean task."
Brian Modoff with Deutsche Bank believes Apple may instead be looking to better integrate existing baseband chipsets with its own custom A-series chips.
"Instead of an organic baseband development, we believe Apple is rather trying to realize better integration with existing baseband chipsets and their apps processor, or possibly developing their own internal Wi-Fi chipset," Modoff said.

The comments are similar to ones made last week by Rod Hall of JP Morgan, who cited the "notoriously difficult" nature of developing baseband processors. Hall said he didn't believe Apple would be able to utilize custom iPhone baseband chips until 2015 at the earliest --?a timeframe much sooner than Modoff believes is possible.

AppleInsider discovered earlier this month that Apple has hired away senior radio frequency engineers from Broadcom and Qualcomm. The news came after a rumor claimed Apple was planning to move its baseband processor design in-house.

In addition to hiring at least 30 mid- and senior-level baseband software and hardware engineers from existing players like Broadcom and Qualcomm over the last three years, Apple is also advertising more than 50 additional openings related to RF chip design. Still, those numbers are well short of the 1,000-plus engineers that Modoff believes would be necessary to accelerate baseband chip development.

The baseband chip acts as the "brain" of a handset's wireless modem. Working in concert with a transceiver, which controls the sending and receiving of wireless signals through the antenna, the baseband processor is what allows a device to communicate over cellular networks.

Over the last few years, Apple has been selectively bringing certain aspects of product development in-house, making the company less reliant on off-the-shelf parts that competitors can also utilize. Developing its own chips, such as the A-series processors found in the iPhone and iPad, also allows Apple the ability to better keep secrets within the company, without having to share information with third parties.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 73
    mubailimubaili Posts: 393member
    Would it more difficult to develop a CPU? Stoopid analysts.
  • Reply 2 of 73
    chandra69chandra69 Posts: 638member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by mubaili View Post



    Would it more difficult to develop a CPU? Stoopid analysts.

    Its not about CPU or tech.

    Its about patents. Talent migration. Need-to-innovate-our-own-thing.

  • Reply 3 of 73
    ceek74ceek74 Posts: 324member
    So Apple will have some of the best minds working on baseband chips with a pretty much unlimited budget and they will fail how?
  • Reply 4 of 73
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    chandra69 wrote: »
    Its not about CPU or tech.
    Its about patents. Talent migration. Need-to-innovate-our-own-thing.

    Or license.
  • Reply 5 of 73
    phone-ui-guyphone-ui-guy Posts: 1,018member

    The only thing I am confident about is that analysts have no idea what Apple is doing.

  • Reply 6 of 73
    undefined
  • Reply 7 of 73
    darklitedarklite Posts: 229member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by mubaili View Post



    Would it more difficult to develop a CPU? Stoopid analysts.

    Whether it's more difficult than a CPU doesn't matter - Apple already have the talent for a CPU, but they don't have a lot of people on the baseband side of things, and they might not have the patents or licensing needed either. But as it turns out, a baseband chip probably would be more difficult than a CPU. The baseband chip often has its own memory and firmware, and the firmware has to respond to hardware / network events much quicker than a normal OS. If you've got the people it's possible, but it'll still take a long time and it's a specialist area.

     

    The analysts are arguing that Apple would need both a lot of time and a bigger team to design their own baseband chip - this seems fair enough to me. The alternatives they've suggested also seem pretty sensible - both would reduce Apple's reliance on third parties, and will give them a good foothold should they want to manufacture the entire baseband chip.

  • Reply 8 of 73
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    Why have been seeing so many posts recently that just write [I]undefined[/I] as the message?
  • Reply 9 of 73
    gwmacgwmac Posts: 1,797member

    What is the status on the Qualcomm RF360? If that chip is finalized for the iPhone 6 it would be very beneficial to Apple. One chip that can handle pretty much all bands on GSM, CDMA, and LTE. It would work on pretty much every carrier in the world. I wonder how far they are from production.

     

    http://www.qualcomm.com/chipsets/gobi/rf-solutions/qualcomm-rf360-front-end

  • Reply 10 of 73
    This is interesting, in some ways this makes Apple become more like what Motorola Solutions does... and more of a telecommunications company, but not just. MOT was never good at technology transitions, from analog to digital and from feature phones to smart phones, but Apple is a leader. Time will tell if it can stay a leader...
  • Reply 11 of 73
    gwmacgwmac Posts: 1,797member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SolipsismX View Post



    Why have been seeing so many posts recently that just write undefined as the message?

     

    If you happen to use Facebook for forum log in on other sites for some reason it will log you off of your account here and log you in with your Facebook account if you ever created one. The post are then posted as "undefined" Not sure if it is a glitch with safari, Facebook, or AI. But for some reason it always logs me off this account and tries to sign me in on Facebook if I visit a site where I actually use FB to log in for comments and come back. 

  • Reply 12 of 73
    creepcreep Posts: 80member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by ceek74 View Post



    So Apple will have some of the best minds working on baseband chips with a pretty much unlimited budget and they will fail how?

    Who said anything about an unlimited budget?

  • Reply 13 of 73
    I wonder if Apple is planning on using custom technology to supplement existing baseband tech (like Qualcom's.

    In one of his presentations of the pCell technology, Steve Perlman said they had installed the pCell chips into (on the back of??) iPhones in addition to the standard LTE chips. That way when a user entered into a metropolis supported by pCells, they would get the advantages of pCell. Conversely, when they left the pCell area, the cell communication would be handed off to the regular [non-pCell] cell network.
  • Reply 14 of 73
    jsewelljsewell Posts: 12member

     these "...guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in."

  • Reply 15 of 73
    macinthe408macinthe408 Posts: 1,050member
    "Apple could never build a mobile 64-bit chip on their own." - some idiot analyst last year
  • Reply 16 of 73
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by macinthe408 View Post



    "Apple could never build a mobile 64-bit chip on their own." - some idiot analyst last year

     

    And piling on...

     

    Remember all the analysts predicting the M7 chip?   Yeah, they're clued into what Apple is or isn't doing.

  • Reply 17 of 73
    jsewell wrote: »
     these "...guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in."

    Yeah :D
    "We've learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They're not going to just walk in."
    Palm CEO Ed Colligan, commenting on then-rumored Apple iPhone, 16 Nov 2006
  • Reply 18 of 73
    ...they're not just going to walk in here....oh wait.....
  • Reply 19 of 73
    gwmacgwmac Posts: 1,797member

    Did a little more research on the Qualcomm RF360 and it appears to be ready for mass production now. I will be very surprised if this is not what Apple uses for the iPhone 6. This would be the holy grail.

     

    From Qualcomm.

    The WTR1625L, a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., is the first in the industry to support carrier aggregation with a significant expansion in the number of active RF bands. The WTR1625L can accommodate all cellular modes and 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE frequency bands and band combinations that are either deployed or in commercial planning globally. Additionally, it has an integrated, high-performance GPS core that also supports GLONASS and Beidou systems. The WTR1625L is tightly integrated in a wafer scale package and optimized for efficiency, offering 20 percent power savings compared to previous generations. The new transceiver, along with the Qualcomm RF360 Front End chips, is integral to Qualcomm’s single-SKU World Mode LTE solution for mobile devices.

     

    http://gigaom.com/2014/02/06/the-first-smartphone-powered-end-to-end-by-qualcomm-will-debut-this-year/

  • Reply 20 of 73
    If you understand the details of Apple's license with ARM, you would know that they use a lot of Arm design work to make the task of designing a better chip easier. They also have a higher level license for making their own chips that follow the ARM standards. It is certainly possible that Apple has the deep pockets to pay for a separate type of license from Qualcom or Broadcom. Apple has used Qualcom for some time now. Perhaps they will license many of the frand patents from Qualcom and Broadcom to make their own baseband chips in house. Apple has used the current system to it's own advantage for some time because they have the money to do what ever they desire to do strategically. I can imagine that Qualcom would not want Apple's A9 or A10 to greatly outdistance their own in house Cpu's with integrated basebands. Their ability to compete with Apple as providers for Android phone makers is not something they would like to give up.

    The eventual advantage Apple could leverage here is a software system that controls what the baseband is doing based upon the task the phone is being used for. It is also possible to add bandwidth from a next generation wireless point to the phone functions to avoid call dropping and other annoyances on calls made from one iPhone to another (like iMessage). This would directly attack the wireless providers source of revenue and ability to upcharge their customers. Even having the ability to do this in house would be a deal changer as far as negotiations with Cellular companies goes.
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