Data from Qualcomm suggests that Apple could produce 176 million 5G iPhone units this year
With a little bit of math and plenty of fingers and toes, Sina Finance (via WCCFtech) has calculated that Apple purchased approximately 176 million 5G modems from Qualcomm for this year. This calculation dovetails with estimates calling for Apple to produce 5G and non-5G iPhone models in the neighborhood of 190-200 million units for 2020. On the other hand, another report written by Taiwan's Appledaily calls for Apple to roll out 120 million 5G iPhones this year indicating that the higher figures overestimate reality. Another possibility is that Apple expects strong sales for the iPhone 12 series this year and next year. One other option is that Apple ordered more modem chips than they needed because the company plans on using them on some future Apple devices. There has been talk about a 5G iPad tablet in the future and Apple might have ordered enough chips for such a device.
Apple ordered more 5G modem chips from Qualcomm than expected
Each 12-inch wafer that TSMC ships to Qualcomm can yield 2,211 modem chips for Apple; with 80,000 wafers shipped, we can estimate that Apple received 176 million 5G modem chips. This tells us that Apple expects to deliver 176 million 5G handsets this year. You might recall that Apple and Qualcomm were the Silicon Valley equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys in 2019 with both firms taking each other to court for various patent infringements. Apple was frantically trying to find a source for 5G modem chips. On April 16th, 2019, just after Apple concluded its opening statement in a court battle with Qualcomm, a settlement between the two companies was announced. In return for a large sack of cash from Apple (estimated to be $4.5 billion), the chip designer gave Apple a six-year licensing agreement with an option for an additional two years. The settlement also included a supply agreement that covers the purchase by Apple of Qualcomm's 5G modem chips. All legal action filed by both companies against the other was dropped.
At left, Qualcomm's mmWave antenna and at right is Qualcomm's X55 5G modem chip
In more news related to this subject, Qualcomm is now TSMC's largest customer for chips made used the 7nm process node. The process node is based on the number of transistors that fit in a square mm. TSMC's 7nm process node sports 96.5 million transistors in that little space compared to 171.3 million with the latest 3nm process node. The larger the number of transistors inside a chip, the more powerful and energy efficient it is. The 7nm process is used to manufacture the Snapdragon X55 modem chip and the current flagship Snapdragon 865 and Snapdragon 865+ chipsets.
Apple does not ever want to be in the position again where it needs a specific component from a third-party supplier. So it has been working on developing its own modem chip. This would be dome similar to how Apple designs its own chipsets and has it built by a contract foundry such as TSMC or Samsung. Last year, Apple spent $1 billion to acquire most of Intel's smartphone modem chip business. 2,200 Intel employees joined Apple with the transaction. Apple hopes to start using its own 5G modem chips perhaps by 2023. This could save Apple some money which in turn might allow the firm to cut pricing on future 5G enabled devices.
That Apple went ahead and purchased Intel's smartphone modem business suggests how strongly it wants to design its own chips. A $1 billion acquisition is unusual for Apple which usually involves itself in smaller transactions covering niche components that it plans on using for the iPhone or other devices within the next year or two. The largest acquisition made by Apple was its purchase of Beats Audio for $3 billion in 2014.