So Qualcomm is finally getting serious about competing with Apple’s A and M Series chips. Apple has been beating the pants off of them when it comes to power and efficiency in mobile chip design for several years now and the gap has done nothing but widen recently.
Now Apple has taken that lead over to their Mac hardware and lapped Microsoft and Qualcomm, despite their two year head start down the same road. The company’s new CEO says he has a plan that many others have tried in similar circumstances with mixed results. Will it work for Qualcomm?
So what’s the plan? In a nutshell, if you can’t beat the competition, hire a few guys away and see if they can make lighting strike again for you. When you boil away the hype, that’s pretty much the strategy that Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon revealed this week. In an interview with Reuters, he said that the company will deliver chips just as good as Apple’s M1 next year thanks to their acquisition of startup Nuvia for $1.4 billion. It just so happens that the small team that founded Nuvia all came from Apple.
It sounds like a really simple plan, right? Unfortunately, it’s a bit too simple for the real world of mobile technology. Mr. Amon’s bluster makes for a good soundbyte for the tech press, but it ignores two roadblocks that may be very difficult for Qualcomm to overcome.
First, Qualcomm may have poached a few key engineers who used to work at Apple, but they don’t have a couple of the most critical elements that made Apple’s A and M Series chips what they are. Qualcomm doesn’t and will never control the rest of the hardware or the software of any devices their chips will be used in. Apple’s control of the entire stack is where part of the power and efficiency of their designs comes from. That’s not something that can be duplicated working with Microsoft on the software side and many other partners on the rest of the hardware.
I’m not saying that Qualcomm’s chips can’t be good. They will almost certainly be better than what the company is offering for the very few ARM-based Windows computers available today. However, their approach and the way they go to market with their chips is so radically different that I don’t see how it’s realistic to expect that they can duplicate exactly what Apple delivers.
There is another, potentially more difficult mountain that Qualcomm will need to climb to create a new chip design with a proprietary core. Apple has protected all of its chip designs with a wall of patents and you can bet they will be watching their former employees VERY closely as they work on these new competing products. In fact, before Nuvia was purchased by Qualcomm, Apple was already suing co-founder Gerald Williams III for planing his exit and recruiting Apple employees to leave with him while on company time.
While the suit had nothing to do with Nuvia itself or any of that company’s designs or hardware, it shows that Apple felt like Williams was preparing to shop designs related to their products to the highest bidder and didn’t appreciate it. If anything, them selling out to a competitor in this market goes some distance toward confirming that. If Qualcomm even breathes in the direction of anything Apple deems to be its intellectual property, off to court this pair of companies will head yet again.
I’m not saying that Qualcomm can’t get around this. Companies do it all the time, but these former Apple employees will have to be very careful to keep from using any of the same architecture or design that was used in their work with their former employer. Considering that Apple was forced to settle and come to terms with Qualcomm to license their modems and 5G tech for the iPhone a few years ago, they aren’t going to be generous here if they feel a case can be made. If there is any way Apple can hit back and force Qualcomm to license their IP for these new chips, well, turnabout is fair play in big tech.
At the very least, I think Qualcomm will have an uphill battle on their hands getting a new chip that’s anything close to Apple’s M Series out as soon as next year. Even if they can navigate the potential patent minefield, it will be hard for them to overcome Apple’s advantage of full control of the entire software and hardware stacks. However, as both an Apple fan and a Windows user on the desktop side, I still see this move by Qualcomm as good news for the industry, overall.
If Qualcomm gets more aggressive when it comes to efficient chip designs for laptops and desktops, that will push Apple and keep them from becoming complacent in their current lead with the M Series. As a Windows user, I also look forward to a day when more software is compiled for ARM chips and there are more and better hardware options to choose from. Qualcomm offering better chips than they do today should help to spur that market to grow beyond Microsoft’s Surface Pro X pet project its far less impressive contemporaries. Competition is a good thing, so here’s hoping that Qualcomm is up for more than just big talk.