Apple Semiconductors

Apple Puts ‘Walkie Talkie’ iPhone Project on Hold

Apple has shelved a novel wireless technology project that would have allowed people with iPhones to reach nearby companions in areas without cellular coverage, such as on ski slopes or on hikes in remote areas, said two people familiar with the project.

Although the reasons for suspending the effort couldn’t be learned, the departure of the project’s champion from Apple earlier this year was a factor, one of the people said.

Apple was working with Intel on the technology that would have let people send messages from their iPhones directly to other iPhones over long-distance radio waves that bypass cellular networks, said two people familiar with the project. The technology would have functioned something like a walkie talkie for text messages, giving people the ability to communicate in areas unserved by wireless carriers.

The Takeaway
• Apple has shelved technology for iPhones messaging without cell coverage
• Would have relied on Intel modems in upcoming iPhones
• Technology could help hikers in remote locations, others communicate

The iPhone effort went by different code names inside Apple, where it was called Project OGRS (pronounced “ogres”), and Intel, where it was referred to as Project Shrek. The technology was designed to run over the 900 megahertz radio spectrum, which is currently employed for dispatch radio communications in fields such as the utility, oil and gas industries. The technology was to rely on Intel cellular modems inside upcoming iPhones, one of the two people said.

The technology could still show up in future iPhones, one of the people familiar with the project said. Another factor in Apple’s decision about the technology could have been its expected switch to modems from wireless chipmaker Qualcomm in future iPhones.  

An Apple spokesperson had no comment. An Intel spokesperson declined to comment. 

Apple has dropped hints about its interest in this type of wireless technology in the past. Earlier this year, it filed a series of patents describing device-to-device and off-grid communications. The patents use the term Off Grid Radio Service, along with the acronym OGRS—the same name as Apple’s internal code name for the project.

The project suffered a blow when the Apple executive in charge of it, Rubén Caballero, left the company earlier this year, said a person familiar with the project, who added that the project was “his baby.” The Information first reported Caballero’s departure from Apple in April.

Caballero didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Inside Apple, Caballero had amassed a small empire of nearly 1,000 employees working on wireless projects. His responsibilities included one of the company’s most ambitious engineering efforts, an expensive plan to build cellular modems in-house for future iPhones, said two people familiar with the matter. 

But in a power struggle for control of the group, Caballero lost out to Apple chip head Johny Srouji, who took over responsibilities of the Apple modem team, Reuters reported in February. Caballero’s team was dispersed to other parts of the company in the wake of his departure, said one person familiar with the matter.

Direct Communications

Even though Apple has placed the wireless project on hold, other companies are working on similar technology, including the startup goTenna. The company sells smartphone accessories—a pair of the devices cost $179—that let phones communicate with each other in areas without cellular reception. 

The wireless technology inside goTenna’s devices is able to form so-called mesh networks, linking together multiple devices to extend the range of their communications beyond pure direct connections, goTenna co-founder and CEO Daniela Perdomo said in an interview.

Seen as a niche device for hikers in remote areas or concertgoers at indoor venues to be able to send messages or GPS coordinates to others, goTenna is now targeting public sector uses, including first responders. GoTenna believes companies will eventually integrate the technology directly into their devices, and the company has built a module that allows such integration to happen. 

“Our dream is to get goTenna into all phones,” said Perdomo. 

Allowing devices to directly communicate with each other instead of going through a network is also being built into the standards for the current generation of cellular networks, known as LTE, along with next-generation 5G networks, said Mike Thelander, CEO of wireless research firm Signals Research Group.

There is already a standard for the current generation of wireless devices, called LTE Direct, that enables devices to communicate directly to each other; Qualcomm has an implementation of LTE Direct that lets devices separated by more than a quarter-mile talk to each other. But handset makers haven’t yet incorporated the technology into their devices. 

Device-to-device communication is likely to be an important feature for 5G networks, said Thelander. Companies in the wireless industry have plans to add capabilities to 5G networks that could allow someone with a weak wireless connection to hop between phones to reach a stronger signal.

Growing Wireless Plans

Despite putting the project on hold, Apple’s effort underscores the company’s broader push to differentiate its products using wireless technology. The company has significantly increased its wireless investments with the recent $1 billion acquisition of Intel’s cellular modem assets, a deal that will bring 2,200 new employees to Apple along with a trove of wireless patents.

For the first 5G iPhones coming in 2020, Apple will rely on chips from its previous modem supplier, Qualcomm, an agreement made possible by the settlement of a legal battle between the two companies over patent royalties earlier this year. Apple has a longer-term goal of producing its own cellular modems in a few years, as The Information has previously reported.

Under Srouji, Apple’s overall chipmaking capabilities have expanded greatly since it first began designing its own custom chips in 2010. In recent years, its A-series processors have outpaced competing mobile processors and have become a key differentiator in the market.

Now Apple appears to be following that same strategy to wireless. Starting with AirPods, the popular earbuds it launched in 2016, Apple began designing its own wireless chips—known as the W1—that communicate over the Bluetooth protocol. The wireless performance of AirPods, including the speed and strength of their connection to phones, had helped make the product a runaway hit.

Apple continues to pump out new W-series chips, including the W2 and W3 inside the Apple Watch, which add Wi-Fi capabilities. Apple also has been working on satellite communication technology that could allow it to deliver wireless internet data, Bloomberg reported in 2017.

The wireless functions enabled by Project OGRS could further entrench Apple devices and services into the lives of its users. Already, iMessage is seen as an important feature for keeping iPhone users loyal to Apple’s family of devices. Making it possible to message between iPhones  that are out-of-range could deepen consumers’ attachment to those devices.