The already acrimonious fight between Apple and Qualcomm got even uglier today. The two companies have been slugging it out for years over a range of issues related to royalty payments and fees — Apple’s decision to deploy Intel modems in its iPhones is seen as a desire to move away from Qualcomm. There are parallels between the Apple-Qualcomm relationship and the Apple-Samsung fights of several years ago, but the Apple-Qualcomm battle has been uglier. Now, Qualcomm has accused Apple of stealing trade secrets and sharing them with Intel to help get Chipzilla’s modem technology ready for the iPhone.
The charge of stealing corporate secrets is potentially explosive. These types of theft are treated extremely seriously in technology because they have the risk of ruining years, even decades of work that companies do to bring long-term projects to market. Imagine the damage to Intel, for example, if some vital function of a CPU is found to have been stolen from a competitor. That competitor would be well within their rights to request that the part is pulled from the market until it can be redesigned. Other companies, fearing revenge from the infringed-upon party, might refuse to carry the competitor’s part. Trade secret theft issues were raised between both Intel and AMD and AMD and Nvidia in 2008 and 2013, respectively, and in both cases, you don’t see the rival company making a sound in protest. While there have obviously been exceptions and corporate espionage is A Thing, companies generally don’t want to go so far as incorporating IP from another company into their products.
According to Qualcomm, it was prevented from conducting an audit on Apple’s use of source code and tools provided by Qualcomm for the purposes of iPhone development. It claims to have discovered this trade secret theft after discovery in a related lawsuit allowed it to unearth evidence that confidential information was improperly provided to Intel for the purposes of improving Intel modems and performance. We’ve written before that the Qualcomm modem solution was generally superior to the Intel one in the Apple iPhone, that the situation improved from 2016 to 2017, but that Apple actually disabled certain features on its handsets to ensure parity between devices outfitted with each. Despite this, Intel modems still lagged Qualcomm performance in 2017.
We haven’t seen any figures for this year yet, but the assumption was that the improvements from 2016-2017 reflected Intel’s growing expertise in the field and improvements to its silicon. They still could. Allegations, after all, are not the same as proven facts. But if Apple actually stole trade secrets from Qualcomm and gave them to Intel, it could open a massive legal ball of worms that could impact Intel’s modem business going forward, depending on the specifics of what was taken and whether Intel is directly implicated in the theft. Apple, of course, steadfastly denies that any breach of agreement or inappropriate data sharing has occurred.
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