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Apple Is Designing iPhones, iPads That Would Drop Qualcomm Components

Apple puts Qualcomm’s communications chips in roughly half of its iPhone 7 units; the other half use chips from Intel Corp.

Apple’s planned move for next year involve the modem chips that handle communications between wireless devices and cellular networks. Qualcomm is by far the biggest supplier of such chips for the current wireless standard.

Qualcomm said its “modem that could be used in the next generation iPhone has already been fully tested and released to Apple.” The chip company said it is “committed to supporting Apple’s new devices” as it does for others in the industry.

Apple in the past used only Qualcomm modem chips for iPhones, but started also procuring the chips from Intel for its iPhone 7 and 7 Plus models last year. It again used a mix of the two in the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus that started selling in September.

Apple’s plans to exclude Qualcomm chips from next year’s model could still change. People familiar with Apple’s manufacturing process said the company could change modem-chip suppliers as late as June, three months before the next iPhone is expected to ship. Still, some of the people said Apple hasn’t previously designed iPhones and iPads to exclude Qualcomm chips at a similar stage of the process.

The Apple plans indicate the battle with Qualcomm could spill beyond the courtroom feud over patents into another important Qualcomm business where it has the potential to send ripples through the smartphone supply chain. Qualcomm last year sold around $3.2 billion of modem chips a year to Apple, or 20% of its total chip sales, according to an estimate by Macquarie Capital. This year, Qualcomm’s chip sales to Apple are likely to come to $2.1 billion, or 13% of total chip revenue, reflecting more fully the iPhone 7’s mix of Qualcomm and Intel modems.

Selling chips is generally less profitable for Qualcomm than its patent business. Apple paid $2.8 billion last year in Qualcomm royalties, which accounted for nearly 30% of the chip maker’s per-share earnings, according to Macquarie Capital. In the last year, Apple has stopped reimbursing those fees to iPhone and iPad manufacturers, which in turn have stopped paying Qualcomm.

Qualcomm Chief Executive Steve Mollenkopf earlier in October described the dispute with Apple as “fundamentally about pricing” and expressed optimism that the two companies would find common ground. “For big companies, you sometimes have these disputes but you have a broader relationship,” he said at the The Wall Street Journal’s WSJ D.Live conference.

Jettisoning Qualcomm chips would create risks for Apple. Semiconductor analysts widely consider modem chips from Intel and MediaTek, a smaller chip designer based in Taiwan, to lag Qualcomm in performance in areas such as download speeds. For example, Qualcomm has shipped a chip in phones that can process 1 gigabit of data per second, while Intel and MediaTek haven’t demonstrated modem chips that fast, said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at technology research firm Moor Insights & Strategy.

Also, Apple typically wants at least two suppliers of key iPhone components to bolster its negotiating leverage, according to people familiar with its procurement process. So it would have to add a new supplier such as MediaTek in addition to Intel to maintain that for modem chips.

If Apple—which ships more than 200 million iPhones annually—taps Intel and MediaTek to provide modems for future handsets, both would stand to gain a greater piece of the roughly $5 billion market for stand-alone modem chips. Qualcomm currently dominates that market with a 50% unit share while MediaTek has a 25% share and Intel a 6% share, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics.

Intel’s chips so far have been designed to manage communications for only one of two earlier-generation cellular standards still in use, while Qualcomm’s chips have been capable of handling both. As a result, Intel has been trying to broaden its portfolio to catch up with Qualcomm and this year announced a chip compatible with both of those standards. The chip would be Intel’s first modem that works with a full scope of wireless carriers. Intel hasn’t said when the unit would be available.

Qualcomm and Intel also are vying for leadership in the next generation of wireless technology, known as 5G. Phones featuring 5G-capable chips are expected to hit the market largely in 2019, and Qualcomm is ahead of many peers, said Mr. Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy.

—Ted Greenwald and Joe Flint contributed to this article.

Write to Dana Mattioli at dana.mattioli@wsj.com and Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com


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