When Apple and Qualcomm fight, the iPhone suffers

Qualcomm’s striking back at Apple.

The chipset maker announced on Monday it’s countersuing Apple in response to a lawsuit from earlier this year.

It’s yet another case of pure corporate drama that you, me, and most consumers don’t really need to stick our noses in — just another normal day where one big tech giant sues another tech giant for suing it first. What else is new, right?

There’s a very simple reason why you should care, though: your iPhone suffers.

But let’s backtrack for just a sec to understand how this messy battle between the two tech titans started in the first place.

Apple sued Qualcomm in the Southern District of California for nearly $1 billion in January for withholding payments, and followed up with lawsuits against the company in China, the UK, and Japan.

Here’s the gist of the lawsuit: Apple says Qualcomm abused its monopolistic market position and charged the company “at least five times more in payments than all the other cellular patent licensors we have agreements with combined” relating to baseband processors used in iPhones. Furthermore, Apple also claims Qualcomm “insisted on charging royalties for technologies they have nothing to do with” such as “Touch ID, advanced displays, and cameras.”

Apple threw the ball into Qualcomm’s court, and the chip maker has hit back, and it doesn’t look pretty for poor angel Apple, who would never bully anyone.

In a 139-page Answer & Counterclaims document, Qualcomm denies any wrongdoing and slams Apple on several accounts. Qualcomm accuses Apple of “giving government agencies false and misleading information and testimony” about the company, and for interfering with contracts it has with “manufacturers of Apple’s cellular devices.” Additionally, Qualcomm claims Apple has intentionally misrepresented the performance of iPhones with its modems.

That last bit affects something that concerns all iPhone owners: performance.

Not all iPhone 7’s are equal

You see, while all iPhone 7 and 7 Plus (doesn’t matter where in the world it’s sold) are identical on the outside, the insides aren’t quite the same.

The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are Apple’s first iPhones to use baseband modems from both Qualcomm and Intel. In the years prior to the iPhone 7, Qualcomm was the only supplier of baseband modems for the iPhone.

The difference between an iPhone with Qualcomm and Intel baseband modems is pretty significant.  Bottom line: According to very credible reports, the Qualcomm modem performs better. Like, much better.

As first discovered by Cellular Insights back in October 2016, there’s an easy way to tell which modem your iPhone 7 has. If you’ve got a Verizon, Sprint, or unlocked iPhone 7 or 7 Plus, your phone has a Qualcomm modem, which is technically superior to Intel’s. And if you’ve got a T-Mobile or AT&T iPhone 7, you’ve got an Intel modem.

Theoretically, Qualcomm’s modem, found in the aforementioned iPhone 7 models, are capable of peak download speeds of up to 600 Mbps. But as discovered, Apple intentionally disables certain functions to limit peak download speeds to 450 Mbps in order to make sure they’re not appreciably faster than Intel’s modems. But even with the limits, iPhone 7’s with Qualcomm modems still perform better than ones with Intel modems.

You want an iPhone 7 with a Qualcomm modem.

“In all tests, the iPhone 7 Plus with the Qualcomm modem had a significant performance edge over the iPhone 7 Plus with the Intel modem,” Cellular Insights reported. 

In other words, you want an iPhone 7 with a Qualcomm modem. At least you should.

But here’s where things go from bad to really ugly. In the counterclaim, Qualcomm says: “Apple not only deprived Qualcomm of the opportunity to have consumers appreciate Qualcomm’s best technology, but Apple also attempted to prevent Qualcomm from disclosing the superior performance of its chipsets to the public.”

Apple reportedly told Qualcomm it would be “unacceptable” for the company to publicize any comparisons that would suggest iPhone 7’s with its modems have greater performance over Intel’s, despite the fact independent tests like Cellular Insights’ report have already proven so. Qualcomm also alleges Apple threatened potential future supplier business if it moved forward with any such comparisons.

A less innovative iPhone

It’s pretty nuts if you think about it: Apple is deliberately throttling the performance its own product simply to ensure that everyone has roughly the same user experience. It makes sense is many ways, but at the end of the day the iPhone 7 (some models, anyway) aren’t as good as their own technology allows.

As for why, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Apple and Qualcomm are obviously pointing fingers at the other party, and they both make good points. It’s hard to blame Apple for wanting to break Qualcomm’s de facto monopoly on iPhone modems, and Qualcomm obviously wants to keep getting its tech into the hands of as many people as possible.

Whatever your view, the bottom line remains: Your iPhone isn’t as good as it could be, and it’s all because of a corporate shouting match.

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