Intel, despite several years of trying to push its processor technology into smartphones and other mobile devices, has had relatively little to show for its efforts. Asus’ ZenPhone 2 is powered by an Intel Atom chip, but most of the devices on the market are powered by processors based on the ARM architecture.
However, Intel officials are eyeing another avenue into the space: the wireless modem chip. And the chip maker’s new 7360 LTE modem reportedly will find a home—in this case, a socket—in a version of one of Apple’s upcoming iPhones due for release in 2016.
According to anonymous sources cited in a report by the news site VentureBeat, Intel’s 7360 LTE modem—which is scheduled to be released later this year, with devices using the product hitting the market next year—will be used in a version of the iPhone that will be offered in emerging markets in such regions as Asia and Latin America.
Qualcomm has been the primary provider of wireless modem chips in Apple’s mobile devices, but sources in the VentureBeat story said Apple was interested in finding a second source of the technology and is opting for Intel, whose 7360 LTE modem has impressed device makers. Intel has been building out its wireless modem capabilities since buying Infineon Technologies’ wireless business in 2010 for $1.4 billion.
The report said that Apple engineers for months have been traveling to Munich, Germany—where Intel develops its modem technologies—to work with their Intel counterparts to get Intel’s LTE modem ready for the iPhone.
The Intel modem can run download speeds up to 450 megabits per second.
Getting into the iPhone would be a significant win for Intel. When it launched the iPhone 6 and 6s in September, Apple sold more than 13 million units over the first weekend. It also would enable Intel to ding rival Qualcomm, whose 9X45 LTE modem is found in the iPhone.
In addition, Intel’s work with Apple may go beyond simply supplying the LTE modem in some versions of the iPhones (which reportedly will be the 7 and 7 Plus) and include manufacturing some of them in its fabrication facilities, according to VentureBeat, which earlier this year raised the possibility of Intel modem chips in iPhone. In the devices, the LTE modem currently sits next to Apple’s Ax CPU. Apple officials reportedly are interested in integrating the LTE modem onto the same silicon as the CPU, which would improve both performance and power efficiency.
The VentureBeat sources said Apple could tap Intel to design the system-on-a-chip (SoC) and then manufacture it in its fabs.
Neither Intel nor Apple officials are commenting on the reports.
Intel officials admit that the company is trailing Qualcomm in the market for wireless modem chips, but the company has been aggressive in building out its product lineup, including partnering with Chinese chip maker Rockchip to accelerate the delivery of its LTE-enabled modems into the market. The company already has the 7160 and 7260 in the market, but officials have said the 7360—the first with LTE connectivity—will be the product that begins to ramp up volumes that are sold.
Intel May End Up Inside Apple’s iPhone
Wireless modems are important in a world that is becoming increasingly connected and mobile and where people are relying on their smartphones for more than just making calls and playing games, Navin Shenoy, corporate vice president and general manager of mobility client platforms at Intel, told eWEEK in September.
“It is about having a computer in your pocket and not just a phone,” Shenoy said.
Qualcomm is the dominant player in the space, but Aicha Evans, corporate vice president and general manager of Intel’s Communication and Devices Group in the Platform Engineering Group, said in a recent interview with eWEEK that the gap is closing.
“We’re not talking years away,” Evans said. “When you’re going after volume, you can’t be years away. … We’re 12 to 18 months to getting to that volume.”
During a conference call with analysts and journalists this month to talk about third-quarter financial numbers, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said company engineers understood the dynamics of the modem space.
“It’s a competitive market, and it’s not as much about how many players are in it,” Krzanich said. “There are actually I think more than two. But it’s really about keeping that yearly cadence and having the right technologies in place and being competitive, and it doesn’t really matter almost how many there are, there will be somebody there trying to compete with you at that leading edge. That’s where the modem is really driven—at that leading edge.”