Qualcomm unveils third-gen 5G modem

Mobile chip maker Qualcomm has offered the first look at its third generation 5G modem, but it won’t appear in devices for a year.

The Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System, to use its full name, will be the first of any kind to incorporate a baseband that’s manufactured on the 5nm process. This means the silicon can do more processing and use less power then older manufacturing processes. Other than that the headline new features concern carrier aggregation.

Not only will the X60 support CA across all 5G bands, including mmWave, it will also let you combine FDD and TDD streams. The significance of this kind of CA flexibility is that, in principle, it will allow operators to cobble together whatever bits of spectrum they find down the back of the sofa in a bid to deliver on the many promises made on behalf of 5G.

“Qualcomm Technologies is at the heart of 5G launches globally with mobile operators and OEMs introducing 5G services and mobile devices at record pace,” said Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm President. “As 5G standalone networks are introduced in 2020, our third-generation 5G modem-RF platform brings extensive spectrum aggregation capabilities and options to fuel the rapid expansion of 5G rollouts while enhancing coverage, power efficiency and performance for mobile devices. We are excited about the fast adoption of 5G across geographies and the positive impact 5G is having on the user experience.”

There’s not that much else to add for now, since this new product portfolio is still some way from existing in the wild. AnandTech did a comprehensive-looking deep dive here, if you fancy geeking out a bit on this, and there’s also the vid below. What does seem likely is that Qualcomm will maintain its 5G modem leadership for the foreseeable future.

Qualcomm unveils new flagship Snapdragon

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm dragged the industry over to Hawaii so they could hear about some of the new stuff it has lined up for next year.

You’ll be amazed to hear that Qualcomm reckons 5G is going to be a big deal and that it expects to be a big part of that. “5G will open new and exciting opportunities to connect, compute, and communicate in ways we’ve yet to imagine and we are happy to be a key player driving the adoption of 5G around the world,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon, presumably having had to be dragged away from a Mai Tai to manage even that.

At the vanguard of Qualcomm’s 2020 5G push will, of course, be it’s Snapdragon SoCs, which tend to find their way into the mobile devices made by any vendor that can’t be bothered to make its own chips. The flagship Snapdragon next year will be the 865, which will include the X55 5G modem. One rung further down the value chain will be the 765, see how it works?

The other main announcement on the first day in Maui is an updated version of Qualcomm’s ‘3D sonic fingerprint technology’. Apparently the new, improved version offers a 17x lager recognition area as well as other improvements. The keynote didn’t seem to address the hassle Samsung recently had with the technology, which presumably led to a bit of a diplomatic incident between the companies. Cnet, however, had a chat with Qualcomm about that very topic, which you can read here.

Lastly, for those of you either not invited or disinclined to schlep half way around the world for a spot of sub-tropical death-by-PowerPoint, Qualcomm thoughtfully recorded the Day 1 keynotes and put them of YouTube, which you can see below.

Intel reduced to using MediaTek modems for 5G PCs

Remember when Intel was Apple’s 5G secret weapon to break Qualcomm’s modem stranglehold? Well, now not so much.

It turns out Intel can’t even cobble together a modem for its own products and has been reduced to calling on the help of MediaTek to bring 5G to PCs containing its chips. The resulting effort is, of course, being positioned as ‘a 5G solution’, which long-time Intel partners Dell and HP will be dutifully whacking into some of their laptops when it becomes available.

“5G is poised to unleash a new level of computing and connectivity that will transform the way we interact with the world,” proclaimed Gregory Bryant, GM of Intel’s Client Computing Group. “This partnership with MediaTek brings together industry leaders with deep engineering, system integration and connectivity expertise to deliver 5G experiences on the next generation of the world’s best PCs.”

Note the uncharacteristic absence of superlatives in that otherwise by-the-book canned quote. That’s because everyone knows Qualcomm is the 5G modem leader, even Apple. Relations between Qualcomm and intel are presumably strained since the latter tried to help Apple strong-arm the former and as a result Intel partners get an inferior modem in their 5G solutions.

“Our 5G modem for PCs, developed in partnership with Intel, is integral to making 5G accessible and available across home and mobile platforms,” said MediaTek President Joe Chen. “5G will usher in the next era of PC experiences, and working with Intel, an industry leader in computing, highlights MediaTek’s expertise in designing 5G technology for global markets.”

Does it really though, Joe? Anyway, the extent to which there will be any demand for laptops with built-in 5G built in remains to be seen. With tethering now so easy, it’s hard to see why anyone would pay a premium for any kind of embedded modem in their lappy, let alone a 5G one. But it would have looked bad for Intel to not even give it a go, and that’s what this announcement seems to be about, as much as anything else.

Apple forecast to dominate the 5G smartphone market next year

A report from analyst firm Strategy Analytics reckons that then Apple launches its 5G iPhones next year it will immediately become the biggest 5G player.

Right now SA says Samsung has around 40% of the market and Huawei has another 30%. Apple hasn’t launched a 5G phone yet, thanks in part to it trying to get tough with 5G modem leader Qualcomm, before eventually capitulating. That’s all set to change when the next lot of iPhones gets launched, Which SA says will all be 5G enabled.

“It may seem counterintuitive that Apple, which currently has no 5G phones in its portfolio will be able to pass current 5G market leaders Samsung and Huawei,” said SA’s Ken Hyers. “But with three new 5G models coming next year, Apple merely needs to match its current upgrade rates for newly introduced iPhone models to take the lead next year.”

“Currently Samsung is the undisputed market leader in 5G smartphones,” said Ville-Petteri Ukonaho, of SA. “But with the two largest 5G markets in 2020, China and the USA, dominated by Huawei and Apple respectively, these two vendors are set to lead in 5G next year.”

Eventually, however, the balance will inevitably be restored at 5G modems find their way further down the Android product stack. “Despite the strong showing that is expected for Apple in 5G in 2020, in the longer term Samsung will regain the 5G crown,” said Hyers. As more markets cut over to 5G, Samsung will capture the majority of that share by virtue of its dominance of the overall smartphone market and a broader portfolio of 5G devices across more price-bands.”

“Huawei’s potential in 5G smartphone sales is currently limited by the US technology trade ban,” said Ukonaho. “Huawei is dominant in China and will likely remain so. But until the ban is lifted, prospects for Huawei in 5G smartphone sales elsewhere are limited. Regardless of its long-term prospects in terms of 5G smartphone marketshare. 2020 will be Apple’s time to grab bragging rights in 5G.”

Here’s the SA forecast chart, showing Apple quickly grabbing a 40% share of the 5G market and topping 50% by the end of the year. As Hyers indicated the forecasting is simply based on the historical uptake of new iPhones, which seems fair enough. If Apple decides some of its new iPhones are undeserving of a 5G modem then the things could look pretty different.

Samsung launches a new 5G modem.

Korean electronics giant Samsung had revamped its Exynos 5G modem and processor range with a couple of new ones manufactured on the 7nm EUV process.

The Exynos Modem 5123 and Exynos 990 processor are made using a 7 nanometer process technology, which is about as advanced as silicon tech gets these days and uses extreme ultra-violet is some clever way to deal with the physical challenges of operating at such tiny sizes. To the layman this means you can cram more transistors into a smaller space and thus make the chip perform better.

“Milestones in technological advancements are imminent all around us,” said Inyup Kang, President of the System LSI Business at Samsung Electronics. “Mobile 5G technology is opening new avenues for communication and connection, while AI is poised to become an everyday tool for people worldwide. Samsung’s Exynos 990 and Exynos Modem 5123 are perfectly adapted for high-volume 5G and AI applications, and are designed to help the world’s most ambitious enterprises, large and small, achieve their goals of bringing new capabilities to their markets.”

Samsung has plenty more detailed technical claims to make about the new chips but you get the gist. In other news Samsung is seeking to promote its new ‘experience space’ in Kings Cross by getting people to send in their selfies, which it then beams into space and displays on a Galaxy S10 smartphone that is somehow dangling in orbit. Here’s a video about it.

 

Downbeat outlook fuelled by Huawei situation hits Qualcomm shares

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm delivered solid Q2 numbers but a gloomy outlook thanks largely to the Huawei export ban drove down its share price.

Qualcomm’s core numbers were broadly in line with expectations, with revenues a bit below but earnings per share above. But in the ensuing earnings call Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf warned of a few factors that are likely to negatively affect the company in the coming quarters.

“The Huawei export ban, along with the pivot from 4G to 5G which accelerated over the past couple of months, has contributed to industry conditions particularly in China that we expect will create headwinds in our next two fiscal quarters,” said Mollenkopf. “As a result of the export ban, Huawei shifted their emphasis to building market share in the domestic China market, where we do not see the corresponding benefit in product or licensing revenue.

“In addition, our customers in the China market are working through their existing 4G inventory and deemphasizing their second half 2019 4G launches, as they shift their priorities to their 5G launches in early 2020. As a result, we do not expect the typical seasonal benefits given this unique market dynamics. For the first calendar quarter of 2020, we anticipate reaching the inflection point as our financial results begin to reflect the benefits of our substantial efforts over the years to bring 5G to the market worldwide.”

The reason Huawei’s increased emphasis on China is to Qualcomm’s detriment is two-fold. Huawei presumably uses its own chips in devices it sells within China, so Qualcomm doesn’t have a piece of that action. It does, however, sell components to the other Chinese smartphone makers, so any increase in competitive pressure from Huawei will affect Qualcomm’s revenues from sales to them.

Compounding this is a general softness observed in the Chinese market, which Qualcomm seems to mainly attribute to a lull before the 5G storm. It looks like the channel is trying to reduce the amount of 3G/4G inventory ahead in anticipated demand for 5G devices. As a result Qualcomm has reduced its expectations for global connected device shipments this year by around 100 million.

In the longer term Qualcomm still feels pretty bullish, largely on the back of its claimed 5G modem leadership. Qualcomm reckons the Huawei 5G modem is at least 50% bigger than its one and, of course, Intel’s efforts turned out to be a complete bust. It’s hard to argue with this conclusion so, while Qualcomm’s shares were down 6% in pre-market trading at time of writing, its long term modem prospects still look pretty healthy.

Qualcomm shipment outlook

Qualcomm Earnings Infographic Q32019

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.

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.