Qualcomm secured its third and most significant win against fierce adversary Apple late last week, with a jury in the US District Court of California ruling against the iPhone maker and ordering it to sign over a check for $31 million. Following similar decisions in Germany and China in recent weeks, Qualcomm mocked Apple in a statement saying, “we are gratified that courts all over the world are rejecting Apple’s strategy of refusing to pay for the use of our IP.”
Specifically, three patents for smartphone technologies were found to be infringed upon, firstly “flashless booting,” a method enabling handsets to rapidly connect to the internet after booting up, thereby cutting costs and footprint of separate flash memory. Another, dubbed the “traffic cop”, enables smartphone apps to transfer data to and from the internet quickly and efficiently, where the “cop” sits between the applications processor and the modem. Lastly was a patent relating to technology for powering high performance visual graphics for games while increasing a smartphone’s battery life. “These patents are outside of the modem processors and are not essential to practice any cellular standard,” noted Qualcomm.
This third patent seemingly relates to the graphics processor, while the first involves the application processor, yet it is largely known and accepted now that Apple is aiming to become a self-sufficient beast in both these components, ambitions signaling the ultimate aim for Apple of making its own modems – ridding its devices of Qualcomm technologies once and for all. Qualcomm’s rival Intel would also suffer as a result. So, the chip giant’s win from California represents a milestone moment in the race for self-sufficiency.
Apple began phasing in Intel’s modem chips in 2016 and only used Intel products in last year’s iPhone models. But Qualcomm has continued to supply modems for older models, and Apple says it will use only those for German iPhone 7 and 8 handsets.
That would give it full control over the design and availability of the component and could reduce handset bill of material cost (excluding the cost of recouping the massive investment required to create a modem from scratch). However, it would also expose Apple to the risk of creating an inferior modem to that of Qualcomm – and as many modem casualties in the past have illustrated, from Broadcom to Nvidia to Freescale, it is tough to beat Qualcomm at its strongest game.
“Today’s unanimous jury verdict is the latest victory in our worldwide patent litigation directed at holding Apple accountable for using our valuable technologies without paying for them. The technologies invented by Qualcomm and others are what made it possible for Apple to enter the market and become so successful so quickly. The three patents found to be infringed in this case represent just a small fraction of Qualcomm’s valuable portfolio of tens of thousands of patents,” said Don Rosenberg, EVP and general counsel for Qualcomm, implying there is plenty more than $31 million to be prized from the grip of Apple.
There have also been murmurs about whether Apple has the knowhow to design a modem for its in-house SoC, due to the difficulties in developing such a complex component from the ground up, although remember Apple wasted no time in replacing Imagination GPUs.