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Apple To Dump Qualcomm Chips As iPhone 8 Sales Collapse In China

The bitter legal dispute between Apple and Qualcomm has escalated sharply overnight as the former designs out Qualcomm components from future products. According to the WSJ, Apple, locked in an intensifying legal fight with Qualcomm, is designing iPhones and iPads for next year that would jettison the chipmaker’s components.

Apple is considering building the devices only with modem chips from Intel and possibly MediaTek because "Qualcomm has withheld software critical to testing its chips in iPhone and iPad prototypes, according to one of the people." The move is a dramatic reversal for the long-running relationship: Qualcomm, which has worked with Apple for a decade, stopped sharing the software after Apple filed a federal lawsuit in January accusing Qualcomm of using its market dominance unfairly to block competitors and to charge exorbitant patent royalties. Qualcomm has accused Apple of mischaracterizing its practices.

The dispute is centered on modem chips, but Apple’s strategy to reduce its dependence on Qualcomm has been underway since the iPhone 7 rollout. The WSJ continues.

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.

Some additional context on Apple’s significance to Qualcomm’s revenue.

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.

Despite the continuing escalation, both in commercial and legal terms, the situation is fluid and there is hope for compromise, the Journal notes.

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. 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.

While Qualcomm remains heavily exposed to Apple, the latter has a precarious course to steer if it is going to drop Qualcomm components entirely.

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.

Meanwhile, Intel has the biggest opportunity to grow its market share by a factor in 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.

Removing Qualcomm components is not Apple’s only near-term challenge to its iPhone franchise. Overnight, the South China Morning Post reported further headaches for Apple's recent product offering, as retailers in mainland China are offering steep discounts only a month after the disappointing launch of the iPhone 8.

Unlike the frenzy generated by pre-orders for the wallet-busting iPhone X on Friday, the popularity of Apple’s other new smartphone, the iPhone 8, has quickly run out of steam in mainland China just a month after its release, with major e-commerce platforms offering big discounts to encourage customer orders. Suning.com, the e-commerce platform of China’s largest electrical appliance retailer, Suning Appliance, is offering discounts of as much as 1,100 yuan (US$165.5) on the iPhone 8 to customers, making its prices as competitive as or even cheaper than those offered in Hong Kong, where mainland visitors swarm to purchase Apple products for savings of up to 15 per cent. Customers who pay a 100-yuan deposit on Suning.com and Suning’s official store on Tmall will be offered discounts of 900 yuan or 1,100 yuan on different iPhone 8 models, which will ship after Single’s Day on November 11. The cheapest iPhone 8 model, the 64-gig variant, for instance, will cost 4,788 yuan (US721) after the discount by Suning, as compared with the official price tag of 5,888 yuan in China, which is 6 per cent lower than the phone’s HK$5,988 (US$768) price tag in the Apple Store in Hong Kong.

The SCMP article contained a stinging assessment from one analyst.

“The iPhone 8 might be the most poorly sold flagship iPhone model in China, as such huge discounts have never been seen before in the country,” said Zhao Ziming, a senior analyst at Pintu Tank in Beijing. Zhao said a month after the iPhone 7 was launched last year, the models were still hard to find in the market and consumers had to compete for an order online, let alone any huge discounts offered by authorised retailers. The iPhone 8, which offers few upgrades in terms of appearance over the previous version, has failed to trigger any shopping spree in China since its launch on September 22.

With hindsight, the lack of upgrades and, to some extent, cannibalization of iPhone 8 sales by the imminent rollout of iPhone X has exposed poor judgement on behalf of Apple’s senior management. Will the Qualcomm decision have a similar fate?