Company / division: Qualcomm
Apple Adds New Claims to Qualcomm Lawsuit (Jun 20, 2017)
I’ll start with my usual caveat on so-called “gigabit” wireless services: though theoretical throughputs on devices with the new modems being discussed here can reach gigabit per second speeds, the real-world experience is going to be a fraction of that. In other words, even if the reporting in this article is correct, Apple isn’t going to be missing out on true gigabit speeds any more than the other device vendors will have them. The second caveat is that even the more realistic speeds will only be available where carriers have upgraded their networks to support them, which will be far from everywhere for the near future. With those caveats out of the way, though, Apple will be one of the few device vendors out there without these faster modems in its devices over the next year. However, as the article rightly points out, Apple has rarely been willing to put cutting edge new modem technology in its devices at the same time as others, generally preferring to wait for the technology to mature before deploying it, as it notably did with both 3G and LTE. There is, of course, this time also the added complication of Qualcomm being the only supplier with a gigabit modem ready to go, and the fact of Apple’s very adversarial relationship with Qualcomm and its decision last year to introduce Intel modems. I’m inclined to believe the reporting here is accurate, but I’m not sure it’s really all that significant – in real-world experience, there will be very little difference for many customers over the next couple of years, and Apple will almost certainly jump on the gigabit modem bandwagon next year, likely through Intel.
Apple Hires Senior Qualcomm Engineer as Wireless SoC Lead (May 29, 2017)
Though Google spent much of its I/O keynote talking about apps and features like Photos and the Assistant, it did devote a few minutes to the topic of AR and VR, which will have a second deeper-dive keynote of their own tomorrow. On the VR side, the key announcement is that Google is extending the Daydream platform beyond mobile VR to standalone headsets, which in the first instance will be built by partners Lenovo and HTC and supported with chips from Qualcomm. Daydream so far has been limited by the fact that the biggest Android smartphone vendor has its own competing platform, so the news that Samsung’s Galaxy S8 phones will support Daydream through a software update in the summer is a big deal. My guess is that Samsung will still favor its own Gear VR system with its usual bundling and discounting deals, but the fact that Daydream View and other compatible headsets will now work with Samsung devices should increase its appeal. Daydream’s system is better than Samsung’s in a number of ways, though the recent Gear VR update closes the gap a bit, so the playing field should be a leveled a little going forward. Also worth noting are a couple of AR announcements, including a new “Tango phone” to support Google’s indoor mapping technology, and VPS, an indoor equivalent of GPS which will enable precise directions within large stores and the like. Neither of those feels remotely mass market yet, which means Google’s AR efforts are far more marginal than the phone-based efforts from Facebook and Snapchat (and likely soon Apple too). Interestingly, VR head Clay Bavor outlined his vision for the space in a blog post today too, and it’s remarkably similar to Microsoft’s in that it envisions a continuum or spectrum that includes both VR and AR, though Bavor’s favored term is immersive computing rather than mixed reality and he’s less pejorative about the VR and AR terms everyone is already using.
Microsoft Announces Details Around Windows 10 on ARM (May 12, 2017)
In commenting on Qualcomm’s recent earnings report, I mentioned that if Apple and its suppliers continued to hold back royalty payments as part of their dispute, Qualcomm would be affected more severely in future quarters than in Q1, and that has now proven to be the case. In Qualcomm’s original guidance for this quarter, it had said that its guidance range didn’t include a scenario where it received no payments at all from these companies, but it now appears that’s the scenario that’s playing out. Apple has said it won’t make any payments until the dispute is resolved and new royalty rates set, which is a great way to put pressure on Qualcomm to either settle quickly or at least move the court case along swiftly, but means Qualcomm will be severely impacted in the meantime. It’ll be very interesting to hear Apple’s commentary on all this on its earnings call next Tuesday because it will have to set aside at least some of the amounts due as a contingency, and I’m curious to see how that affects its reported costs and margins.
ARM-Based Windows 10 PCs to Arrive in Q4 2017 (Apr 21, 2017)
Qualcomm has just reported its earnings for the March quarter, and one of the most interesting aspects is its commentary on its dispute with Apple. It says that Apple’s suppliers reported but did not pay around $1 billion in royalties in the quarter, which exactly offset the $1 billion Qualcomm is refusing to pay Apple under the Cooperation Agreement the two companies have, and which Qualcomm says Apple breached. Importantly, that Agreement ended in December, so there are no more payments to be withheld, which means if Apple suppliers continue to withhold royalty payments, they’d affect Qualcomm financially going forward in a way they didn’t this past quarter. As such, it’s given a wider EPS guidance range (25 cents) than usual (it was 10 cents in the last two quarters, for example) because of the uncertainty over these royalty payments (the math here is tricky but I reckon that’s about a $400m range in net income terms). Beyond the Apple dispute, the results are a little tricky this quarter because on paper they look terrible, with revenues and profits way down over the same quarter last year. But that’s partly because Qualcomm had to reduce from its GAAP revenues the nearly one billion dollars it’s due to pay BlackBerry as a result of arbitration between the two companies. The actual results are much better, in keeping with recent trends at Qualcomm, lawsuits aside.
Qualcomm Files Response to Apple Lawsuit (Apr 11, 2017)
Qualcomm has now officially filed a response to Apple’s lawsuit over anticompetitive practices and breach of contract, including both answers to the specific allegations in the suit and a number of counter-claims. One of the main counterclaims is that, by “inducing” regulators to look into Qualcomm, Apple breached the companies’ “Cooperation agreement” and therefore was no longer entitled to certain payments it had received previously. The document further alleges that Apple made many false statements in the course of both its own suit and the discussions it had with regulators, and tried to insert itself into relationships between Qualcomm and other Apple suppliers. Perhaps most interestingly, Qualcomm brings to light something which was covered in the press at the time but didn’t get much attention: the allegation that Apple deliberately hamstrung the Qualcomm chips in the iPhone 7 such that performance would be consistent with those models that had Intel modems, and then prevented Qualcomm from talking about it. On the face of it, that allegation has nothing to do with the broader allegations, but it’s an area where Apple’s public reputation could be vulnerable, and I’m guessing it’s been included in the suit to garner more attention than Qualcomm would get through focusing on the patent and other issues alone.
Another crazy wrinkle in the ongoing set of regulatory and legal actions against Qualcomm over anticompetitive practices: the Korean regulator responsible for the fine against Qualcomm last year says that one of the conditions of the contract between the companies was that Samsung would not be allowed to sell its own Exynos chips to any other vendors. What’s particularly crazy here is that Samsung is both Qualcomm’s biggest customer for chips and a contract manufacturer of those chips, so the two are inextricably intertwined here but are still going through this painful process. Samsung isn’t suing Qualcomm as Apple is, but it’s still likely cooperating with the authorities who are looking into its dealings in various markets. Just another sign of how far relationships between Qualcomm and some of its biggest customers have got, that they’re willing to start airing their grievances despite their close ties.
The data center business at Intel accounts for almost a third of its revenues, has high margins, and has been growing considerably faster than its Client Computing segment (which includes PCs, tablets, and mobile phones). And it’s done well in large part because of commitments from big players like Microsoft to using its chips in their data center servers. But now Microsoft is saying it plans to switch to using ARM-based chips made by Qualcomm in its Azure server infrastructure instead, which could put a dent in Intel’s future growth and reduce its share from the 99% cited in this Bloomberg article. This isn’t imminent – it’s a step on a path Microsoft is committed to, but hasn’t been rolled out to any customer facing servers yet. But ARM-based chips have been cited as potential substitutes for Intel chips in server farms for some time now, so this could be the beginning of a dramatic shift in the next few years. That’s obviously terrible news for Intel, for which the data center business has been a useful source of growth and margins in recent years. Meanwhile, this is such a small business for Qualcomm today that it doesn’t even get mentioned in its quarterly earnings materials, but that could obviously change rapidly going forward.
Just a quickie here – Apple has now sued Qualcomm in the UK too, on top of its existing suits in China and the US. There’s not a lot more detail in this article or, apparently, in the court filing itself, but the thrust of the UK case seems to be the same as in the other cases already filed.
5G Schedule Moves Up to 2019 – PCMag (Feb 27, 2017)
As I expected, 5G seems to have been a big theme at MWC this year, with lots more marketing type announcements but also some actual products being announced, albeit ones which should technically be described as pre-5G. The headline here is a bit funny, because of course it’s in these companies’ interests to suggest 5G is more imminent than previously thought, but it’s not up to them how quickly the technology gets deployed – that’s entirely up to the carriers, and I’m still very skeptical that we’ll see 5G available to more than a handful of locations before 2020 in the US (or probably anywhere else). And of course the idea that Qualcomm’s 5G modem would premiere in an iPhone seems laughable – Apple has been deliberately slow to adopt both previous wireless generations (3G and 4G), because the early trade-offs between performance and battery life make early entry unappealing. I don’t see that changing with 5G. But as a previous piece suggested, 2017 is going to be the year of pre-5G commercial trials, which is an important step along the path to eventual mainstream rollout and adoption.
Intel’s 7560 Modem Could Push Next iPhone to 1Gbps – PCMag (Feb 21, 2017)
There’s some conjecture here on two points: that simply because Intel has added CDMA/EVDO capability to its next LTE modem Apple will use it globally, and that a modem capable of delivering peak throughput of a gigabit per second will actually do so in real world environments. The latter is an obvious stretch, given that real-world performance is always a fraction of the theoretical peak, but the former may well be a stretch too. I’m not convinced that Intel could ramp up production quickly enough to be the supplier for all of the next generation of iPhones – that would be a massive step up over its iPhone 7 supply. And I’m not convinced that Apple, having finally gained a measure of redundancy by dual sourcing modems for the iPhone 7, would so quickly jump back into single sourcing, especially given the performance limitations of the current generation Intel modems. That’s not to say this would never happen, and it’s obviously a very interesting point of leverage in the context of the current bad blood between Apple and Qualcomm, but I still think it’s somewhat far fetched at this point.