Inside Apple’s Spectacular Failure to Build a Key Part for Its New iPhones
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Inside Apple’s Spectacular Failure to Build a Key Part for Its New iPhones

The company set out to design a silicon chip that would allow it to cut ties with Qualcomm, a longtime supplier and bitter foe

By AARON TILLEY
Fri, Sep 22, 2023 9:05amGrey Clock 5 min

The new iPhone models unveiled last week are missing a proprietary silicon chip that Apple had spent several years and billions of dollars trying to develop in time for the rollout.

The 2018 marching orders from Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook to design and build a modem chip—a part that connects iPhones to wireless carriers—led to the hiring of thousands of engineers. The goal was to sever Apple’s grudging dependence on Qualcomm, a longtime chip supplier that dominates the modem market.

The obstacles to finishing the chip were largely of Apple’s own making, according to former company engineers and executives familiar with the project.

Apple had planned to have its modem chip ready to use in the new iPhone models. But tests late last year found the chip was too slow and prone to overheating. Its circuit board was so big it would take up half an iPhone, making it unusable.

Investors had counted on Apple saving money with an in-house chip to help compensate for weak demand in the larger smartphone market. Apple—which hasn’t publicly acknowledged its modem project, much less its shortcomings—is estimated to have paid more than $7.2 billion to Qualcomm last year for the chips.

Engineering teams working on Apple’s modem chip have been slowed by technical challenges, poor communication and managers split over the wisdom of trying to design the chips rather than buy them, these people said. Teams were siloed in separate groups across the U.S. and abroad without a global leader. Some managers discouraged the airing of bad news from engineers about delays or setbacks, leading to unrealistic goals and blown deadlines.

“Just because Apple builds the best silicon on the planet, it’s ridiculous to think that they could also build a modem,” said former Apple wireless director Jaydeep Ranade, who left the company in 2018, the year the project began.

There were two reasons for the push, said former Apple executives and engineers familiar with the matter: Apple believed it could replicate the success of the microprocessor chips it designed for iPhones. Adoption of those chips fattened profit margins and improved performance for billions of devices. Second, Apple wanted to sever ties with Qualcomm, which it had accused in a 2017 lawsuit of overcharging for its patent royalties.

The companies settled the suit in 2019, and Apple, facing the expiration of its previous Qualcomm agreement, announced a deal last week to continue buying the company’s modem chips through 2026. Apple isn’t expected to produce a comparable chip until late 2025, people familiar with the matter said. There could be further delays, these people said, but the company believes it will eventually succeed.

Apple found that designing a microprocessor, essentially a tiny computer to run software, was easy by comparison. Modem chips, which transmit and receive wireless data, must comply with strict connectivity standards to serve wireless carriers around the world.

“These delays indicate Apple didn’t anticipate the complexity of the effort,” said Serge Willenegger, a former longtime Qualcomm executive who left the company in 2018 and doesn’t know the current state of the Apple chip. “Cellular is a monster.”

Apple’s push to build more of the various semiconductors used in its products stretches back more than a decade. In 2010, the company began using its own processing chips in iPhones and iPads. The chips helped Apple outperform many of its Android rivals, which relied on chips from Qualcomm, Taiwan-based MediaTek and other makers.

The company in 2020 began replacing processor chips from Intel, used for years in Mac computers, with a proprietary chip that allowed its laptops to run faster and generate less heat, improvements that helped boost flagging Mac sales. The Apple chip also saved the company an estimated $75 to $150 on every computer.

Credit for the success of Apple processor chips brought praise and increased authority to Johny Srouji, the company’s chip leader. “After shipping the first iPhone, we decided that the best way to deliver the best experience to our customers is to own and develop and design our silicon in-house,” Srouji said this year at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, his alma mater.

Split screen

Apple code-named its modem chip project Sinope, after the nymph in Greek mythology who outsmarted Zeus. It began taking shape in 2018, following the directive of Cook, Srouji, and others for Apple to build its own wireless components, said Chris Deaver, a former Apple human-resources executive and co-founder of BraveCore consultants.

By then, Apple’s relationship with Qualcomm had turned ugly. The companies bickered and swapped accusations of lying, theft and monopolistic practices.

Rubén Caballero, Apple’s longtime head of wireless, supported the Intel chip partnership at the time, while Srouji, senior vice president of hardware technologies, backed the pursuit of a company-built chip, said people involved in the project. Caballero left Apple in 2019.

Many members of Caballero’s team who were versed in wireless chip design were placed under Srouji. Other employees engaged in complementary wireless work, such as antenna design, were split off into the hardware engineering group. One of the top project managers on Srouji’s team had no background in wireless technology, said people who worked on the project.

Apple, which had been poaching engineering talent from Qualcomm for years, stepped up those efforts in March 2019. The company announced a new engineering hub in San Diego, Qualcomm’s hometown, and planned to add around 1,200 local jobs. That summer, Apple announced the acquisition of Intel’s wireless team and a portfolio of wireless patents.

Srouji flew to Munich to greet Apple’s newly acquired Intel wireless employees in December 2019. He told a gathering that the modem-chip project would be a game changer for Apple, the next step in the company’s evolution, said people who watched the meeting. He said the chip would distinguish Apple devices, as Apple’s processors had done.

As Apple filled the project’s ranks with Intel engineers and others hired from Qualcomm, company executives set a goal to have the modem chip ready for fall 2023. It soon became apparent to many of the wireless experts on the project that meeting the goal was impossible.

Apple found that employing the brute force of thousands of engineers, a strategy successful for designing the computer brain of its smartphones and laptops, wasn’t enough to quickly produce a superior modem chip.

Tall order

Modem chips are trickier to make than processing chips because they must work seamlessly with 5G wireless networks, as well as the 2G, 3G and 4G networks used in countries around the world, each with its own technological quirks. Apple microprocessors run software programs designed solely for its iPhones and laptops.

Apple executives who didn’t have experience with wireless chips set tight timelines that weren’t realistic, former project engineers said. Teams had to build prototype versions of the chips and certify they would work with the many wireless carriers worldwide, a time-consuming job.

Executives better understood the challenge after Apple tested its prototypes late last year. The results weren’t good, according to people familiar with the tests. The chips were essentially three years behind Qualcomm’s best modem chip. Using them threatened to make iPhone wireless speeds slower than its competitors.

The company scratched plans to use the chips in Apple’s 2023 models, and the planned rollout was moved to 2024. Eventually, Apple executives realized the company wouldn’t meet that goal either. Apple instead opened negotiations with Qualcomm to continue supplying the modem chips. Apple’s licensing deal with Qualcomm expires in April 2025, though it can be extended for another two years.

Apple has the cash and the desire to keep pursuing its modem chip, according to people involved with the project.

“Apple isn’t going to give up,” said Edward Snyder, a managing director of Charter Equity Research and a wireless industry expert. “They hate Qualcomm’s living guts.”



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New York Watch Auctions Record Uptick in Sales in the Face of Market Slowdown
By LAURIE KAHLE
Mon, Jun 24, 2024 4 min

Luxury watch collectors showed ongoing strong demand for Patek Philippe, growing interest in modern watches and a preference for larger case sizes and leather straps at the June watch sales in New York, according to an analysis of the major auctions.

Independent and neo-vintage categories, meanwhile, experienced declines in total sales and average prices, said the report from  EveryWatch, a global online platform for watch information. Overall, the New York auctions achieved total sales of US$52.27 million, a 9.87% increase from the previous year, on the sale of 470 lots, reflecting a 37% increase in volume. Unsold rates ticked down a few points to 5.31%, according to the platform’s analysis.

EveryWatch gathered data from official auction results for sales held in New York from June 5 to 10 at Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s. Limited to watch sales exclusively, each auction’s data was reviewed and compiled for several categories, including total lots, sales and sold rates, highest prices achieved, performance against estimates, sales trends in case materials and sizes as well as dial colors, and more. The resulting analysis provides a detailed overview of market trends and performance.

The Charles Frodsham Pocket watch sold at Phillips for $433,400.

“We still see a strong thirst for rare, interesting, and exceptional watches, modern and vintage alike, despite a little slow down in the market overall,” says Paul Altieri, founder and CEO of the California-based pre-owned online watch dealer BobsWatches.com, in an email. “The results show that there is still a lot of money floating around out there in the economy looking for quality assets.”

Patek Philippe came out on top with more than US$17.68 million on the sale of 122 lots. It also claimed the top lot: Sylvester Stallone’s Patek Philippe GrandMaster Chime 6300G-010, still in the sealed factory packaging, which sold at Sotheby’s for US$5.4 million, much to the dismay of the brand’s president, Thierry Stern . The London-based industry news website WatchPro estimates the flip made the actor as much as US$2 million in just a few years.

At Christie’s, the top lot was a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM56-02 AO Tourbillon Sapphire
Richard Mille

“As we have seen before and again in the recent Sotheby’s sale, provenance can really drive prices higher than market value with regards to the Sylvester Stallone Panerai watches and his standard Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711/1a offered,” Altieri says.

Patek Philippe claimed half of the top 10 lots, while Rolex and Richard Mille claimed two each, and Philippe Dufour claimed the No. 3 slot with a 1999 Duality, which sold at Phillips for about US$2.1 million.

“In-line with EveryWatch’s observation of the market’s strong preference for strap watches, the top lot of our auction was a Philippe Dufour Duality,” says Paul Boutros, Phillips’ deputy chairman and head of watches, Americas, in an email. “The only known example with two dials and hand sets, and presented on a leather strap, it achieved a result of over US$2 million—well above its high estimate of US$1.6 million.”

In all, four watches surpassed the US$1 million mark, down from seven in 2023. At Christie’s, the top lot was a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM56-02 AO Tourbillon Sapphire, the most expensive watch sold at Christie’s in New York. That sale also saw a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM52-01 CA-FQ Tourbillon Skull Model go for US$1.26 million to an online buyer.

Rolex expert Altieri was surprised one of the brand’s timepieces did not crack the US$1 million threshold but notes that a rare Rolex Daytona 6239 in yellow gold with a “Paul Newman John Player Special” dial came close at US$952,500 in the Phillips sale.

The Crown did rank second in terms of brand clout, achieving sales of US$8.95 million with 110 lots. However, both Patek Philippe and Rolex experienced a sales decline by 8.55% and 2.46%, respectively. The independent brand Richard Mille, with US$6.71 million in sales, marked a 912% increase from the previous year with 15 lots, up from 5 lots in 2023.

The results underscored recent reports of prices falling on the secondary market for specific coveted models from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet. The summary points out that five top models produced high sales but with a fall in average prices.

The Rolex Daytona topped the list with 42 appearances, averaging US$132,053, a 41% average price decrease. Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, with two of the top five watches, made 26 appearances with an average price of US$111,198, a 26% average price decrease. Patek Philippe’s Perpetual Calendar followed with 23 appearances and a US$231,877 average price, signifying a fall of 43%, and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak had 22 appearances and an average price of US$105,673, a 10% decrease. The Rolex Day Date is the only watch in the top five that tracks an increase in average price, which at US$72,459 clocked a 92% increase over last year.

In terms of categories, modern watches (2005 and newer) led the market with US$30 million in total sales from 226 lots, representing a 53.54% increase in sales and a 3.78% increase in average sales price over 2023. Vintage watches (pre-1985) logged a modest 6.22% increase in total sales and an 89.89% increase in total lots to 169.

However, the average price was down across vintage, independent, and neo-vintage (1990-2005) watches. Independent brands saw sales fall 24.10% to US$8.47 million and average prices falling 42.17%, while neo-vintage watches experienced the largest decline in sales and lots, with total sales falling 44.7% to US$8.25 million, and average sales price falling 35.73% to US$111,000.

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