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Locked in an increasingly dangerous legal battle with Qualcomm over modem patents and trade secrets, Apple is upping the ante by aggressively seeking to lure employees from its one-time chip supplier. According to a new Bloomberg report, Apple is now seeking chip engineers located in Qualcomm’s home city of San Diego, California, territory the company has not previously targeted in its recruiting efforts.
While Apple’s own chip development efforts have long been known to be both strong and growing, the company has concentrated its California hiring on Northern California — close to its own Cupertino headquarters — with satellite offices in at least three other states and four other countries where key chipmaking rivals are located. By expanding its hiring to San Diego, Apple appears to be gearing up to poach engineers from California’s only other chipmaking hub, one that has gained considerable importance over the past decade, thanks to the growing popularity of wireless devices.
According to the report, Apple is specifically seeking hardware and software engineers from San Diego to work on wireless components and could be planning a new satellite location for wireless chip design. It’s also looking for engineers to work on its Neural Engines, the dedicated AI and machine learning processors found inside its A11 and A12 families of chips.
Having previously sourced all of its wireless components from other companies, Apple reportedly established an advanced wireless chip development program back in 2012, led by trusted senior executive Bob Mansfield. Since then, the company has released W-series wireless chips for the Apple Watch, AirPods, and Beats headphones, focusing primarily on compact, high-performance Bluetooth capabilities.
Developing in-house cellular technology is the next frontier for Apple’s engineers. A highly publicized spat with Qualcomm revealed that Apple was upset with high licensing fees for Qualcomm’s 4G modems, leading Apple to use slower Intel modems instead. In the resulting lawsuit, Qualcomm recently claimed that Apple improperly gave Intel access to modem-related trade secrets in an effort to free itself from Qualcomm’s components.
After nearly catching up with Qualcomm in 4G modem technology, Intel is now apparently struggling to develop 5G modems, leaving Apple with little choice but to wait until 2020 for a 5G version of the iPhone — if it relies upon Intel parts. As with CPUs and GPUs, however, developing its own modems would enable Apple to free itself from external chip suppliers, possibly even leading to higher-performance or more power-efficient 5G modems.
Qualcomm is currently the leading maker of 5G modems, having created the Snapdragon X50 components used in the first home and mobile 5G devices, and is already working on second-generation 5G components. Hiring modem engineers away from Qualcomm would give Apple its best shot at creating similar chips, and though it would still need to pay 5G patent licensing fees to Qualcomm and others, it might also be able to develop and license its own patent-worthy modem technologies as an offset.
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