Earlier this year, VentureBeat reported that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) may choose to use Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) upcoming standalone XMM 7360 LTE-Advanced cellular modem in a 2016 iPhone model. Additionally, the report claimed that the iPhone models that Intel may ship chips into would be targeted at "emerging markets in Asia and Latin America."
In light of the recent iPhone 6s logic board leaks, which showed no Intel inside, is this still a possibility?
Here's what we know
A recent leak showed that the 2015 iPhone will use Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) MDM9x35 LTE-Advanced modem. This chip supports download speeds of up to 300 megabits per second and uploads of 50 megabits per second, and it's fabricated on a 20-nanometer manufacturing process.
Intel's XMM 7360 supports download speeds of up to 450 megabits per second and upload speeds of 100 megabits per second, making it suitable for a successor to the iPhone 6s. However, unlike the MDM9x35, as well as Qualcomm's equivalent -- the MDM9x45 -- it's built on an older 28-nanometer manufacturing process, potentially meaning it will be at a power efficiency disadvantage to the equivalent Qualcomm solution.
I believe the 2016 iPhone will still be Qualcomm-exclusive
It doesn't seem reasonable to expect Apple to move from a 20-nanometer chip in 2015 to a 28-nanometer chip in 2016, even if it is for select models, and even if the 28-nanometer chip supports faster speeds. It would seemingly make far more sense to expect Apple to continue to use Qualcomm's modem solution exclusively for the 2016 iPhone models.
From a business perspective, especially in light of the fact that Qualcomm is still reeling from the loss of the applications processor socket in the Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) Galaxy S6, it would be reasonable to believe that Qualcomm will be fairly aggressive on pricing to win Apple's business.
What about the 2017 iPhone?
Although the odds don't seem good for Intel winning the 2016 iPhone, there is a glimmer of hope for the 2017 iPhone. Intel's follow-on to the XMM 7360, known as the XMM 7460, is expected to be built on Intel's 14-nanometer manufacturing technology (which was confirmed in road maps that leaked to the Web a while back ).
A reasonable assumption is that the competing Qualcomm part will be built on a foundry 14/16-nanometer manufacturing technology. I believe that the Intel technology is more advanced, which means for the first time, Intel will actually have a slight manufacturing advantage in the world of stand-alone basebands. This could potentially mean a power consumption advantage for the Intel part (although performance and power are both heavily influenced by the underlying chip design/architecture, so this is not a given).
In a scenario where both Qualcomm and Intel have products on a leading-edge manufacturing technology, and assuming equivalent feature-sets, it would seem that the chances that Intel is able to land a second-sourcing deal for baseband chips in a future iPhone are much greater than they are today.
Investors should get a clue this November
At Intel's upcoming Investor Meeting, the company is likely to talk about its sales projections in its mobile group for 2016 as well as potentially give some longer-term guidance. Investors should listen closely for any clue as to how Intel's stand-alone baseband business is going and for clues from management about potentially large design wins.
If Intel ultimately is able to secure a win with Apple, then this could be a major validation of the quality and reliability of Intel's cellular technology. It could also bring in some much-needed revenue dollars to help reduce Intel's sizable mobile division operating losses.