Apple eyeing up $1bn Intel smartphone chip purchase – sources

Reports emerged about Apple’s interest in Intel’s smartphone modem business a few weeks back, and now the rumour mill is back up-and-running as more sources suggest conversations.

According to The Washington Post, a deal worth $1 billion, including various patents and staff, is entering advanced talks. Apple has always been a business which wants to control its ecosystem and such a deal would take it one step closer to developing critical components for its devices.

Although the Intel smartphone business unit has been viewed as somewhat of a failure in recent years, it is certainly more developed than Apple’s in-house capabilities. This is an area which is a significant focus for Apple and incorporating the Intel smartphone business into its own operations could help save it years of development work.

This is of course not the first push into the semiconductor world by Apple. Not only has it announced plans to open a 1,200-strong research facility in San Diego, but it effectively ended its relationship with GPU firm Imagination Technologies in 2017. Apple said it would begin to phase out Imagination Technologies in favour of its own GPU components.

For Apple, this seems like a logical move considering the squeeze which is being placed on smartphone manufacturers worldwide. There are several reasons smartphone shipments are declining year-on-year, but the increasing price is certainly a powerful factor.

The iPhone has consistently underpinned profits at Apple, though the global slowdown and challenge to market share from Chinese brands threaten this. Apple is regularly being undercut by rivals, while entry into new markets such as India has been challenging because of the price of devices. Owning more elements of the supply chain, especially components, can help the iLeader reduce the price of handsets and become more competitive in the era of innovation mediocrity.

This is also a slight change in mentality when it comes to Apple’s acquisition strategy. Rarely does the iChief go for the big-ticket acquisitions, preferring to swallow up smaller providers in pursuit of innovation, but it does appear context is ruling above in this instance, assuming the reports are true of course.

For Intel, this would appear to be a very satisfactory exit from a challenging segment. Although the team has always had ambitions in the smartphone segment, it has never been able to make it work. The unit has consistently undermined profits and recent R&D efforts have focused on 5G in other device segments. This transaction would appear to be a win-win for both parties.

US tech companies reportedly exploit loopholes to work with Huawei

The US government seems to be losing its battle to suffocate Huawei as its own companies look for ways to keep doing business with it.

This is according to the New York Times, which has spoken to no less than four people who reckon they know what they’re talking about on this matter. They say US companies including Intel and Micron have started selling stuff to Huawei again on the grounds that the products weren’t manufactured in the US.

This is just the latest example of the confusion and contradictions created by trying to ban trade with large multinational companies in the era of globalisation. Yesterday we reported on courier firm FedEx suing the US government for putting undue burden on them to vet every package they handle in case it’s contaminated by and Huaweiness.

The NYT piece sheds light on the Byzantine complexity of the rules being arbitrarily imposed on doing business with Huawei. The ‘entity list’ kept by the Department of Commerce seems to be very badly thought out and implemented and seems to make very little allowing for the difficulties it creates for American companies.

At the core of the problem is the use of trade policy to augment political strategy. The Trump administration essentially seems to be using this entity list to brow-beat China into making concessions on things like trade tariffs, currency manipulation, etc. It might end up being quite effective but US companies are being asked to take on the burden of enforcement, which is both burdensome and costly. Some, it seems, are disinclined to play ball.

Apple said to be sniffing around Intel’s modem business

Having recently ditched Intel’s modem business like a bad habit, gadget giant Apple is reportedly now thinking of buying it.

The rumour comes courtesy of The Information, which says it got the scoop from no less than four unnamed people who we’re told have been briefed on the discussions between Apple and Intel. Specifically Apple is said to be interested in Intel’s German modem operations, which is where much of the 5G R7D will have taken place.

Intel found itself as an unwitting pawn in Apple’s legal battle of will with mobile chip giant Qualcomm. Apple wasn’t happy with what Qualcomm was charging for its modems and took to the courts to do something about it. This was always just a form of negotiation, a crucial part of which was Apple’s insistence that it could just walk away from Qualcomm if it didn’t lower its prices.

The problem with this is that there are very few 5G modem players in town and even fewer that aren’t affiliated to a smartphone competitor of Apple’s. One of those was supposed to Intel, which found itself constantly defending its ability to deliver a competitive 5G modem in the face of understandable scepticism from the industry and, increasingly, from Apple itself.

Eventually the Emperor was revealed to be naked and Apple was forced to settle with Qualcomm once it became clear Intel wasn’t able to deliver. Intel wasted little time in throwing in the towel entirely on 5G modems once their only customer had ditched them and promptly retreated into the shadows, vaguely muttering about IoT.

But that doesn’t mean its efforts to deliver a 5G modem were entirely wasted. Through acquisition and organic R&D Intel must have picked up a thing or two about delivering 5G radio over the years. While Apple is forced in the mid term to rely on the loathed Qualcomm, it ultimately aspires to modem self-reliance. Since Intel’s 5G unit is presumably available at a knock-down price following its public humiliation it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Apple snap it up, if only for a laugh.

US supply ban threatens to cripple Huawei’s global business

Another day, another escalation as Google heads a stampede of US companies apparently refusing to do business with Huawei.

As escalations go, however, this is a pretty big one. Reuters was the first report that Google has suspended some business with Huawei in response to the company being put on the US ‘entity list’, which means US companies need explicit permission from the US state before they’re allowed to sell anything to them. It seems that permission has been denied.

For Google this means denying access to those bits of Android Google licenses – mainly the Play Store and Google’s own mobile products such as the Gmail and Maps apps. Huawei can still access the core Android operating system as that has an open source license but, as companies such as Amazon have discovered, that’s pretty useless without all the other Google goodies.

We recently wrote that Huawei’s addition to the entity list is the most significant consequence of Trump’s executive order and here we have an immediate illustration of that. It looks like pretty much all other US companies are also rushing to comply with the new regulations, with Bloomberg reporting that Qualcomm and Intel are among others cutting of business with Huawei and others will presumably follow. Nikkei even reckons German chip-maker Infineon has joined the stampede.

Huawei already has an extensive chip-making operation of its own, so arguably it can cope without the likes of Qualcomm, but what about the millions of other bits and bobs that get crammed into a smartphone such as screens, cameras, memory, sensors, etc? A lot of these could be supplied by non-US companies like Samsung and, of course, Chinese ones, but there must surely be some areas in which Huawei is entirely reliant on the US supply chain.

But Google’s licensed mobile products and services are unique. An Android phone that doesn’t provide access to the Play store is massively diminished in its utility to the end user and Google Maps is the market leader. Google also has a near monopoly with YouTube and millions of people are reliant on things like Gmail, Google Pay, Play Movies. When there are so many great alternative Android smartphone vendors, why would anyone now buy a de-featured Huawei one?

In response to these reports Android moved to stress that it will continue to support existing Huawei Android phones in the following tweet.

Meanwhile Huawei issued the following statement. “Huawei has made substantial contributions to the development and growth of Android around the world. As one of Android’s key global partners, we have worked closely with their open-source platform to develop an ecosystem that has benefitted both users and the industry.

“Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products covering those have been sold or still in stock globally. We will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem, in order to provide the best experience for all users globally.”

Huawei has reportedly been working on its own smartphone OS in anticipation of this sort of thing happening but, as Microsoft, Samsung and others have found, there seems to be little public appetite for alternative to Android and iOS. Huawei may be able to sell a proprietary platform in China, where the Play Store is restricted anyway, but internationally this move will surely see Huawei smartphone sales fall off a cliff.

“If the US ban is permanent, we predict Huawei’s global smartphone shipments will tumble -25% in 2019,” Neil Mawston of Strategy Analytics told Telecoms.com. “If Huawei cannot offer Android’s wildly popular apps, like Maps or Gmail, Huawei’s smartphone demand outside China will collapse.

“If the US ban is temporary, and lifted within weeks, Huawei’s global smartphone growth will return to positive growth fairly swiftly. Huawei offers good smartphone models at decent prices through an extensive retail network, and it should recover reasonably well if it is allowed to compete.”

“We still don’t have a clear understanding of what Google has told Huawei and what elements of the Android operating system may be restricted, so it remains unclear what the ramifications will be,” said Ben Wood of CCS Insight. “However, any disruption in getting updates to the software or the associated applications would have considerable implications for Huawei’s consumer device business.”

There have been very few official statements on the matter from US companies, so Wood is right to tread carefully at this stage, but it’s hard to see this news as anything other than catastrophic for Huawei. Its consumer business, which is the most successful unit in the company, relies largely on Android to run its products and will surely be severely diminished by the Google move.

And there’s no reason to assume the damage will be contained there. Last year Huawei’s contemporary ZTE was almost driven out of business by a ban on US companies doing business with it. Huawei may have hedged its position regarding networking components suppliers more effectively than ZTE but it will presumably suffer greatly once those companies follow suit.

Huawei is one of the biggest companies in the world and has become so in spite of being largely excluded from the US market. The Chinese state will do everything it can to support Huawei, but at least some of its US suppliers offer unique products. At the very least this puts Huawei in a weak negotiating position with potential replacement partners and international customers, but the implications of this latest development are potentially existential.

Apple starts to count the casualties of its poor 5G campaign

It looks like one of Apple’s most senior wireless engineers has cleared off, just days after the company lost its fight with Qualcomm.

The Information has reported that Rubén Caballero, a VP of Engineering in charge of wireless stuff at Apple, has left the building. One of its mystery sources said Caballero was ‘leading Apple’s charge into 5G’, which is especially appropriate considering his surname. Since that charge was resoundingly defeated by Qualcomm’s big guns Apple seems to have decided to discreetly disband its 5G light brigade.

As is its way Apple hasn’t offered any comment on the scoop but The Information says his work emails are bouncing back and his work phone has been disconnected so the circumstantial evidence is strong in this one. Additionally Apple Insider did a bit of sniffing around of its own and got another anonymous source to confirm Caballero’s departure.

Both stories feature a fair bit of speculation about why Caballero may have galloped off after 14 years at Apple, but to us the most likely reason for any wireless casualties at Apple must be the utter farce of its attempted collaboration with Intel. Since Intel was clearly hopelessly inadequate as a 5G modem partner, Apple CEO Tim Cook must have a pretty low opinion of any of his execs that told him otherwise.

Intel admits losing Apple caused it to ditch 5G modems – well duh

Chip giant Intel silenced the non-speculation about it bailing on its much heralded 5G modem project by admitting it was due to losing Apple as a customer.

The scoop comes courtesy of the paywalled WSJ and passed on by The Verge. Intel CEO Bob Swan apparently fessed up to the WSJ saying “In light of the announcement of Apple and Qualcomm, we assessed the prospects for us to make money while delivering this technology for smartphones and concluded at the time that we just didn’t see a path.”

That comment was only a minor elaboration on what Swan said on Intel’s recent earnings call. “As you know, we recently sharpened our 5G focus,” said Swan, in textbook earnings call language. “When it became apparent that we don’t have a clear path to profitability in 5G smartphone modems, we acted. We are now winding down that business and conducting a strategic assessment of 5G modems for the PC and IoT sectors while continuing to meet our current 4G customer commitments.”

Now it’s debatable how much profitability Intel would have derived from its 5G modem sales to Apple if some commentators are to be believed, so the ‘path to profitability’ bit seems like a massive euphemism for ‘likelihood that we will ever deliver a competitive product’ to us. To be fair to Swan there’s no nice way of publicly admitting abject failure so he’s entitled to dance around the issue a tad.

Since it’s now clear that Apple was the only significant customer for its 5G modem and it has apparently deemed it too much of a liability to stick with it’s worth reviewing Intel’s historical pronouncements on the matter.

Intel reckons it has the first global 5G modem

Chip-makers embark on pre-MWC 5G virtue-signalling frenzy

Intel continues to insist it’s really good at 5G

Intel triggered into joining Qualcomm Apple spat

Intel brings forward ‘launch’ of 5G modem in bid to silence doubters

In hindsight it’s all a bit tragic isn’t it? While we don’t doubt Intel genuinely wanted to compete in the modem market it also seems to have been played like a fiddle by Apple. The fruity gadget giant used Intel as a pawn in its hostile negotiations with Qualcomm and dropped it like a bad habit as soon as that became convenient. Cold.

Intel had so little faith in the product of what must have been billions of dollars of effort put into 5G modem development that as soon as its sugar daddy went back to its former partner it pulled the plug immediately. It must surely have seen this coming for a while with all the talk of Apple trying to develop its own modems, so it was just a matter of when it owned up to its 5G failure.

To be honest 5G modems seem to be the least of Intel’s problems right now so it may have been grateful to have ditched that distraction. Swan was forced to also admit Intel was revising down its full year revenue outlook by a whopping $2.5 billion on the earnings call, driving Intel’s shares down 8% at time of writing.

“Our conversations with customers and partners across our PC and data-centric businesses over the past couple of months have made several trends clear,” said Sawn. “The decline in memory pricing has intensified. The data center inventory and capacity digestion that we described in January is more pronounced than we expected, and China headwinds have increased, leading to a more cautious IT spending environment.

“And yet those same customer conversations reinforce our confidence that demand will improve in the second half. So we’ve reassessed our ’19 expectations based on the challenges we’re seeing. Our full year outlook is now $69 billion in revenue, down 3% year-over-year and down approximately $2.5 billion from our previous estimate.”

We had a chat about the Apple/Qualcomm/Intel thing on the most recent podcast, which you can access here.

Apple capitulates to end war with Qualcomm

Qualcomm and Apple agreed to settle all the ongoing litigations with the iPhone maker paying the chipset maker an undisclosed amount and signing a six-year licensing agreement.

On Monday, Qualcomm and Apple went to court over the allegation that Qualcomm has been abusing its monopoly position to over-charge for its chips. The stakes could have run up to tens of billions of dollars, with the OEMs Foxconn and Pegatron already demanding compensation of $9 billion dating back to 2013. The case at the Southern District Court of California in San Diego was meant to last for five weeks.

On Tuesday, the two companies released a brief statement to announce a settlement. “Qualcomm and Apple today announced an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm. The companies also have reached a six-year license agreement, effective as of April 1, 2019, including a two-year option to extend, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.”

This is definitely good news for the two companies especially for Qualcomm, and good for the industry and consumers. Specifically, for Qualcomm it means its business model will remain intact and the company can put an end to a multi-year legal saga; for Apple, in addition to avoiding the punitive $31 billion penalty, this settlement will be able to quicken its steps to launch a 5G iPhone, making up the gap already expanding between itself and the leading pack.

A few hours later, Intel announced that it intends “to exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices. Intel will also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business. The company will continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but does not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020.”

It must have been a blow to Intel’s mobile ambition, especially after it announced only late last year that it would bring the launch of its first 5G modem forward by half a year to the second half of this year, an act to prove the doubters wrong. That originally planned 5G modem to be launched in 2020 referred to in the announcement, presumably a second generation, was supposed to power the first 5G iPhone, after Apple all but officially declared that it would enter into an exclusive relationship with Intel.

Putting the two things together it may be reasonable to infer that Apple agreed to settle after it had realised that it does not have other options than coming back to Qualcomm for the supply of 5G modems (assuming Intel had updated Apple about its imminent decision to withdraw from the market).

In addition to leaning in on Intel, Apple has also been reported to be strengthening its in-house modem development capability, ultimately aiming to rid itself of reliance on external suppliers. Based on the terse announcement released together with Qualcomm, it looks Apple does not believe the home-grown modems will be good enough to compete with Qualcomm in the next few years. Huawei is another supplier that has launched its own 5G modem, but it may be safe to estimate that the chance of Apple going for Huawei chips is slim.

In keeping with the normal practice of settlement cases like this, the companies did not disclose the amount Apple will pay. However, Qualcomm updated the SEC shortly after the settlement announcement was made, as the settlement would have material impact on the earnings. The company expected an EPS incremental of about $2 “as product shipments ramp” without giving a specific timespan. As a reference, in the quarter ending 30 December 2018, Qualcomm delivered an EPS of $0.87 on the back of a total revenue of $4.8 billion. Therefore, assuming Qualcomm’s operational efficiency remains largely constant, the payment Apple will make could run into the $10 billion range.

Payment aside, there must be some soul-searching going on inside Apple, including by Tim Cook, the CEO, who came from a supply chain management background: how could Apple have let itself be cornered so badly in the first place? It’s hard to view this as anything other than complete humiliation for Apple, especially when you consider how aggressively it pursued this case.

On top of the millions it will have paid to lawyers Apple’s negotiating position in arriving at this settlement, considering what was widely assumed about its 5G modem situation, must have been very weak. So it’s quite possible Apple has ended up paying considerably more for Qualcomm’s chips than it would have if it had never initiated this war. Having said that, Apple’s share price seems completely unaffected by the news, probably indicating offsetting relief that it’s back in the 5G game. Qualcomm’s share’s however, surged 23% on the news.

Apple said to be losing faith in Intel’s 5G modem capabilities

A new report suggests Apple no longer has faith in Intel’s ability to deliver a 5G modem it can stick in its 2020 iPhones.

The scoop comes courtesy of Fast Company, which cites an anonymous source that claims to have some insight into the development of the Intel XMM 8160 5G modem. This shadowy figure told Fast Company Intel has been missing incremental deadlines for the development of this critical component, which has led to understandable consternation on the part of Apple.

Equally unsurprising is the revelation that Apple is a pretty high-maintenance company to work with. While some people might take a more chilled approach to component punctuality, Apple is pretty uptight about this sort of thing and isn’t shy about giving errant suppliers a hard time. Intel presumably bent over backwards for this massive deal win, but it always looked like a bit of a reach.

Speculation around Intel’s ability to deliver began as soon as the deal was announced. Late last year Intel got so sick of this scepticism that it publicly announced it was going to have the part ready half a year sooner than previously promised. At the time that seemed like a cosmetic PR move and when asked for comment on this story Intel only had the following to say: “As we said in November 2018, Intel plans to support customer device launches in 2020 with its XMM 8160 5G multimode modem.”

That’s hardly the most strident rebuttal of these latest allegations is it? Especially the use of the term ‘plans to’ instead of ‘will’, that seems to deliberately allow for a level of wriggle room that shouldn’t be needed if everything’s going according to plan. You can see why Apple might be concerned and the report implies Intel might be starting to think it doesn’t need the hassle too.

It goes on to talk about Apple’s ultimate goal of making its own modems, pointing out, as many have previously, that this is far from straightforward. The piece cites a UBS analyst who has joined the chorus of scepticism about Apple’s ability to deliver a 5G iPhone in 2020. Of course this could all be rubbish and Intel may well deliver on its promises, but if it doesn’t Apple doesn’t seem to have a 5G plan B.

Intel VC arm plugs its disruptive vision

Intel has seemingly learned a lesson from the woes of stumbling giants, announcing it has invested $117 million in ‘disruptive’ start-ups at its annual VC conference.

There is a very good reason investors are so keen to pump cash into the likes of Google and Amazon, despite recent criticism and the threat of regulatory reform; these are companies which never sit still. The likes of Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai are constantly pushing the boundaries, expanding the business into new segments. It should be viewed as a lesson for every CEO around the world.

However, this is seemingly a lesson which has only recently been added to the management curriculum. In generations gone, some of the worlds’ leading technology companies have climbed further than any other before, and then stopped exploring. IBM, Oracle and Microsoft are three examples of companies which sat still for years, and the industry moved on without them. They have since recovered, but it took a lot to bridge the chasm.

“Intel Capital is continuing that legacy of disruption with these investments,” said Wendell Brooks, President of the VC arm, Intel Capital.

“These companies are shifting the way we think about artificial intelligence, communications, manufacturing and health care – areas that will become increasingly essential in coming years as the linchpins of a smarter, more connected society.”

One of the oldest phrases in the technology industry is often forgotten, but it seems Intel is attempting to resurrect it; disrupt or be disrupted.

Google and Amazon are the perfect embodiment of this statement. If you look at the acquisitions made over the years, they are incredibly intelligent bets. Google bought YouTube, Android and DeepMind for huge sums at the time, but now they look like bargains. Amazon didn’t make a profit for years, instead re-investing and now has AWS as a profit machine. These companies could have collected profits, paid more dividends and rewarded management with more bonus’, but look at what the end result is.

As it stands, Intel is in a relatively healthy position. Looking at the financials for 2018, revenue was $17.1 billion for the fourth quarter and $62.8 billion for the 12 months. These figures are 8% and 9% up year-on-year respectively, with data-centric revenue up 21% compared to Q4 in 2016. Share price declined on the news, investors were concerned over a conservative forecast, but the warning shot has seemingly been heeded.

If growth is not satisfying investors, something needs to change. The status quo is unlikely to reap more rewards tomorrow than today, therefore investment is required. Some of this will be directed inwards, though through the investments in Intel Capital the firm is welcoming disruption; it wants to be in on the ground floor of these potential booming enterprises.

“Our continued goal is to leverage the global resources and expertise of the world’s greatest engineering company, and its ecosystem of customers and partners, to help these founders accelerate growth and innovation,” said Brooks.

Looking at the investments, AI features heavily. Cloudpick is a smart retail technology provider with proprietary computer vision, deep learning, sensor fusion and edge computing technologies to enable cashier-free stores. SambaNova Systems is building an advanced systems platform to run AI applications. Zhuhai EEasy Technology is an AI system-on-chip (SoC) design house and total solution provider.

The team is also investing in the edge computing hype with Pixeom, mobile content streaming with Polystream, digital healthcare with Medical Informatics and Reveal Biosciences and also smart manufacturing.

The lessons of sitting still are incredibly obvious. Oracle founder CEO Larry Ellison dismissed the cloud and look where that has landed the firm. IBM refused to respond to the evolving PC market and it resulted in a colossal overhaul. Microsoft was another which ignored market trends, with former CEO Steve Balmer making some very off-target predictions in 2006. All of these companies have learned a lesson on disruption, but it came at a cost which took years to fix.

With its VC arm, Intel is promising to invest $300 to $500 million a year in disruptive technologies. It is taking a page out of the Amazon and Google playbook; if you want to remain on top, you can never sit still.

Apple will struggle with 5G for years – analyst

Not only will Apple lag its competitors by at least a year in launching a 5G phone, it might still suck anyway according to a semiconductor analyst.

Bloomberg apparently got hold of a research note from Matthew Ramsay, who heads up the TMT semiconductor business at Cowen. He seems to reckon Apple has boxed itself into a corner by ditching Qualcomm as a 5G modem supplier and is now seriously short of good options in that area. He also expressed surprised that Apple has allowed this situation to develop.

Ramsay detailed four main options for Apple for 5G, but he doesn’t think any of them are great. The first is what is generally assumed: that Apple will launch 18 months behind the competition with an Intel 5G modem that is expected to be inferior and not even support mmWave. The recent MWC show saw the first 5G phones launched but Apple tends to announce new iPhones in September, hence the big lag.

Rubbish option number two is to see if anyone else can help Apple out on the modem side of things. But Huawei is off the table due to all the aggro it’s getting from the US and Samsung would be likely to ruthlessly exploit its overwhelmingly strong bargaining position, since it’s another of the long list of companies Apple is on frosty terms with. Other than that there’s Taiwanese MediaTek, but Ramsay seems to think it’s even further behind than Intel.

A third, highly implausible, option would be for Apple and Qualcomm to kiss and make up. Not only does there seem to have been too many things said that can’t be unsaid in their bitter legal dispute, but that would be an utter humiliation for Apple and surely Qualcomm wouldn’t be able to resist imposing punitive terms. Having said that, sometimes pragmatism and enlightened self-interest prevail, but we would be amazed if they did in this case.

The last option would be for Apple to buy Intel’s modem business from it in order to accelerate the development process. This would be expensive but Apple can certainly afford it. There is, however, no guarantee Apple would improve on Intel’s efforts since modems are hardly a core competence. It’s even less likely that Apple would be able to make a material improvement in the next year or two.

A fifth option not posited by Ramsay would be for an even longer delay in bringing a 5G phone to market. Apple is brilliant at marketing and could easily throw resources at belittling 5G in the short term to downplay the significance of its absence from that market. That argument would certainly find some sympathy from us in the short term, but it would surely start to wear thin before long.