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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

My suspicions on iPhone delays - chipset integration complexity?

EDIT 1am 6/10/11: RIP Steve Jobs

 So.

Now we know that we're going to get an iPhone 4S, and not an iPhone 5 for now. I'm quite glad that I haven't been speculating about what might or might not be in an iPhone 5, as there are plenty of analysts and other commentators with egg on their faces today.

And so now there are lots of people who are disappointed in the outcome:

"Is that all? It's the same device with a better camera and that voice recognition thingy. Where's our big screen, our NFC, our LTE - what happened to all the leaked designs and mockups of cases for a new device? Why did it take them so long to do this, surely this isn't 16 months work, these changes are minor!"

I suspect that the answer lies under the hood. What Apple has actually been doing is working on a new hardware platform which will probably endure for several generations of its devices. That has likely taken a *huge* amount of work: chipset and hardware level integration is massively complex and needs lots of fine-tuning. It's quite possible to have to start again several times if the outcomes aren't perfect - something that Apple has the unique luxury of doing as it's not really that pressured cashflow-wise to get something out, even if it's compromised. It's worth remembering that the original iPhone only came out when Steve Jobs thought it was up to standard, and I'd imagine that Tim Cook will take the same stance on the '5. Then think of all the other promising devices over the years that have had issues like awful battery life, or which crash all the time - or even Apple putting out the iPhone 4 before getting the antenna properly tested and sorted.

It's worth looking at what's in an iPhone. Most critically, the baseband chipset which is the "modem" which connects to the cellular network. (There's a separate story with the apps processor as well, see below).

In most of the iPhones to date, the 2G/3G baseband has come from Infineon (now owned by Intel), with three generations of silicon. The CDMA-based version of the iPhone 4 was the first to have an alternative chip, from Qualcomm. In theory, this chip could have been used to give the "world-phone" UMTS/CDMA ability touted for the 4S - but it was never actually switched on and used in this way.

While the baseband for the 4S hasn't been announced, I strongly suspect it's also a Qualcomm product, as they pretty much monopolise everything CDMA-related, and so dual-mode GSM/CDMA devices are pretty much a done-deal for the Big Q.

Most critically, not only does Infineon/Intel not support CDMA (critical to keep Verizon and others on-board), it  does not currently have an LTE chipset , although it is working on one for mid-2012 volume shipments. Crucially though, that still doesn't support CDMA, which will likely still be needed for a few years as Verizon and others will not have full LTE coverage and enough capacity until 2013-2014 at the earliest and possibly much later. And of course, regular readers will know that I don't expect VoLTE to be fully ready for prime-time for a long while either, so VZW iPhones will need at least CDMA 1x support for the foreseeable future.

And then there's the processor. The iPad has already been using the A5 chip, so it is natural that the company would like to migrate it down into the phone. The iPhone A4 was used in both the iPhone 4's, with previous phones thought to be using a Samsung chip. But a tablet has a big form-factor and battery, so there doesn't need to be such tight integration between the processor and modem - the baseband can be done as a "module" - which in fact works well, because the iPad has to come in WiFi-only versions anyway. But iPhones all need baseband and processor, fitted into much tighter constraints of space and battery size.

So Apple historically has had:

  • A4 + Infineon (iPhone 4 GSM)
  • A4 + Qualcomm (iPhone 4 CDMA)
  • A5 + optional Infineon (iPad & iPad 2)
  • Samsung + Infineon (iPhone 3GS)

But Apple won't want to support multiple hardware platforms unnecessarily if it can avoid it, as it wants to keep up its margins in the face of competition and will want scale benefits and performance optimisation. So there are probably four important hardware integration and evolution exercises that have been occuring at Apple:

  • Move the GSM/UMTS platform from Infineon to Qualcomm, with lots of integration with the radio and other bits of the hardware
  • Add UMTS capability to the CDMA versions of the device - lots of integration, again. [Note: it's more important to add UMTS to CDMA than vice-versa for outbound roaming, although I'm sure Vodafone likes the idea of being able to roam onto Verizon]
  • Shift the iPhone platform from A4 to A5 processor & future descendants AND integrate this with the new (presumably Qualcomm) baseband
(There's also a vague chance that it's migrating away from the Samsung apps processor in newer versions of the 3GS, I guess - especially given the current IPR war between the two companies)


But more importantly I'm expecting that it is also....
  • (I'm really hypothesising here) Developing a single LTE platform consisting of A5 (or A6 etc) processor and a CDMA/UMTS/LTE baseband, usable in iPhone, iPad and iImagineSomethingElse. This is probably a *huge* development project which probably faces a ton of horribleness in everything from power consumption to radio performance. I'd guess there's perhaps a fallback plan of going to separate UMTS/LTE and CDMA/LTE platforms if it faces insuperable problems, especially given the range of frequencies that will need to be supported. I suspect Apple would rather have two or three variants of the same core platform, rather than totally divergent solutions.
I'd guess that just doing the first three have involved a Herculean effort, which we now see the results of in the 4S. If that means that Apple has to disappoint some of its more ardent fans clamouring for new stuff... well, I reckon they took they realised that doing everything in one go was impossible, and decided to take the pain now. 

It's also possible that Apple sticks with another iteration of the current 4S platform for another year, before adding in a "perfect" LTE option in 2013. My prediction from June 2010 was that Apple support LTE was most likely in 2012 or 2013 (I'm glad I dodged the bullet on the 5% 2011 chance). An October 2012 launch would make sense - and would also fit in with future timelines of both Qualcomm and Intel (and possibly others like nVidia).

Edit: there's also a chance Apple will do something truly disruptive with its LTE implementation, and move to a full dual-radio SVLTE approach, keeping telephony on circuit-based radio connections rather than relying on VoIP on LTE or the uber-clunky, worse-than-useless circuit-switched fallback option. Interestingly, Huawei has now started floating dual-radio as a possible option (ZTE has for some time). Hat-top to Zahid for spotting this, I'll follow up another time in depth - and it's also covered in the Future of Voice workshops' section on LTE.

To sum up - in my view, the iPhone 4S is all about the hardware platform shift. Stuff like Siri is window-dressing in comparison, to give the fans at least something visible. LTE support was completely unrealistic (as I've said before) given the other more important and urgent changes going on with the platform. It's also another reason why fripperies like NFC have been kicked further down the road - especially as I imagine Apple knows very well that it's being overhyped.

This might be disappointing for some, and could possibly give Microsoft and Nokia an opportunity to profit from a temporary lull in external iPhone evolution, but it's likely set the scene for continued growth and profitability from Apple's mobile devices for a few more years.

14 comments:

Curtis Carmack said...

Dean,

I think you've nailed it -- something that in my view no other analyst has done. Kudos for the thoughtful piece.

Curt

Q. said...

Nice write.

(iPad 1 has A4 chip not A5 btw)

Armando said...

Great piece

Anonymous said...

Very well done. It's interesting to see the 4S reaction in Japan, well received but no NFC is a true letdown for younger customers. NFC is still at the novelty phase in the American market and can be 'kicked down the road', but Japan has such a lead in NFC infrastructure, it is considered a basic smartphone/keitai feature.

TimmyG said...

really excellent post.

Arun Demeure said...

Hi Dean, there's just one fly in the ointment for your argument: the iPad 2 CDMA pairs the same A5 SoC with the same MSM6600 baseband as the iPhone 4S.

You claim the iPad uses "modules" - this is not strictly correct. While it is a separate PCB, unlike most Android tablets it is not a third party module from the likes of Sierra Wireless or Novatel.

This means Apple can implement as tight an integration as they wish - that's software, not hardware. And the A4 & A5 interface with the baseband using the same standard interface so they've got some experience on that front too even if there are presumably minor practical differences.

Sure, the iPad 2 CDMA didn't support voice and the power amplifiers are different, but in the grand scheme of things that's just a detail.

As for LTE, Apple is nearly certainly waiting for Qualcomm's 28nm MDM9615. Their 45nm baseband is just too power hungry - the ST-Ericsson M7400 on 40nm might be better but it doesn't support CDMA and wouldn't have been ready in time for the iPhone 4S anyway. The MDM9615 also supports TD-SCDMA and TD-LTE for the chinese market.

However the power amplifier situation is still a real concern. The number of PAs they'd need for a true GSM/WCDMA/CDMA/TD-SCDMA/FDD-LTE/TD-LTE world phone is mind boggling, I think easily in excess of 15. So they might still decide to make different models based on PA differences.

Unless they decide to do something more exotic like use Nujira's Coolteq.L. That would also save them a lot of power. The timeframe seems to match but that certainly doesn't mean much. There are some alternatives (e.g. Infineon's Polar RF for many-band or Qualcomm's Envelope Tracking for power) but none of them seem as compelling. We'll see what happens - as always, better not get our hopes up.

As for why the iPhone 4S was delayed - if I had to guess, I'd have to say: iOS 5 not being ready, the Sony 8MP sensor supposedly being delayed by the Japan earthquake, and various minor reasons possibly adding up. I also feel the presentation would have been more impressive had we not known about iOS 5 so much in advance because of WWDC. I do wish it had a bigger screen though so I'm looking forward to the Nexus Prime.

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Arun

Thanks for the comments & definitely agree on the power amps.

I still think that even with the iPad 2 CDMA using both chips (good point btw) it's one thing doing that in a CDMA-only tablet, and entirely another in a smartphone which also needs to support GSM, voice & has much tighter constraints on power & size.

Dean

Gabriel Brown said...

In addition to chipset development, there will need to be a lot of work in iOS to "natively" integrate the IMS stack to deliver VoLTE, etc.

There's not much support outside China for SVLTE and certainly not in the US and Europe.

Dan W said...

I have a sightly different take on why iPhone LTE is a way off - straight up, it costs too much. Go back in time to the first big iPhone launch. Great device, shocking data connection. When the rest of the world had embraced HSPA - and I mean pretty much every device manufacturer by that time had an HSPA-capable model - Apple produced a 2G only device. iPhone adoption really ticked up with the 3G version because that was when people could actually use network connectivity dependent apps.

But it illustrated a point - there is a heck of a lot of tech in an iPhone, and regardless of who you are and what scale you bring, tech costs. So where's the beenfit to Apple of adding in LTE now when the number of global markets addressable with LTE is still low and the cost of the chipsets is still very high? The affect that would have on either the margin per unit or the consumer price point (one or the other would have to give) makes LTE for Apple still some distance off. So I do love all the theories and technical explanations, but the reality is, you won't get an LTE iPhone till LTE scales in a way that means Apple can implement it a lot more cheaply than they could at the moment, and have a much bigger addressable market than they have right now.

If 1 million 4S's have been pre-ordered on the basis of this pretty minor upgrade to an old model, why restrict the applicability by adding in a tech that can only be used in 35 operators world wide and would make the price go up by ~$80-$100? They are doing pretty well without it right now.

Dean Bubley said...

Gabriel

I wouldn't be surprised if Apple completely eschews putting an IMS client on the phone at all, unless customers demand it (like MMS, but unlike Flash).

If operators try to force their hand (eg by switching off CS voice and SMS), they could also do an iCloud interface to IMS, and then link down to the handset using their own preferred VoIP and messaging protocols and services.

There's also an emerging 3GPP standard to let users log onto IMS services using Internet-based OTT credentials...

Dean

Dean Bubley said...

Dan

Agreed - the LTE addressable market is too small. Although there could also have been a non-LTE iPhone 5 with a different form factor etc.

Also, most LTE phones to date have shocking battery life, so that's anoher negative for user experience.

Bottom line is that Apple still wants to make $300 gross margin per device, and 4S will allow them to continue.

Dean

Gabriel Brown said...

@Dan W -- that's essentially the same argument. The market's big enough yet because the products (chipsets in this case) don't exist yet. Just as with 3G, it will take time for the eco-system to evolve. What Apple is proven to be very good at is exploiting the telecom eco-system, standards, and so on. Great! That's what's supposed to happen.

As an aside: I'm pretty sure going with the Infineon 3G chip had a big element of business strategy to it that maybe didn't really work out given it has since moved to Qualcomm. Can't win 'em all.

@Dean -- it's possible that by the time the conditions are right for Apple (per Dan W above) what we think of as IMS and VoLTE will have evolved quite a bit from 2006-era concepts. It's not necessarily an either or situation. However, I would be surprised if it produces an LTE phone that doesn't leverage (hate that word) some very good and valuable work on done in LTE on bearer set-ups, ARP, call admission control, etc. There's a ton of work to "exploit" there to create whatever service you want. Great! That's how it's supposed to work.

Gabriel Brown said...

Edit to the above post:

The market's not big enough yet because the products (chipsets in this case) don't exist yet.

Hamranhansenhansen said...

> 4S. If that means that Apple has to
> disappoint some of its more ardent
> fans clamouring for new stuff

I haven't seen any disappointment among Apple fans. The people who are disappointed, as usual, are gadget blogs and Apple's competitors. This is just the next iteration of "Antennagate" and "Flashgate." Gadget blogs get worked up into a lather, but consumers just keep rolling along, doubling sales every year, and reporting over 90% satisfaction. I can't tell you how many of my non-gadgety friends can't wait to get 4S for the camera alone, and some of them already have iPhone 4. Phil Schiller's camera presentation was exactly what many, many Apple fans were waiting for. That was all they cared about.

You make many great points, and I think you are right that inside Apple they are working on the chips very, very hard. However, I think you minimize the amount of software work that was built for this release. Just "PC Free" alone is the fulfillment of everything that Google promised in Google Chrome OS, and it stands iOS up as the 3rd major consumer PC platform. These devices are getting to be 99% software, we are going to have to adjust to the idea that a computer is now getting to be just a piece of glass with software in it.

Also, I think iPhone 4S was deliberately done with iPhone 4 size and shape because that is like a hardware API, that is how all the hardware accessories hook up. It's like a Leopard and Snow Leopard thing, it gives 3rd parties and consumers a common ground for a long enough time to be dangerous. For example, people who bought a set of speakers with a slot for an iPhone 4 only 6 months ago did not plan to throw those speakers out this year because iPhone 5 had a different shape. The changed shape might have been the only reason they don't upgrade, because they have so many accessories. Other phones have little to no accessories … iPhone may have over 100,000, it is an entirely different situation.