Why Apple’s in no rush to sell you a 5G iPhone

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Virtually all of the major players in the wireless industry are scrambling to tie their fortunes to 5G. Verizon will launch its 5G Home wireless broadband service next month. Sprint and LG want to bring out the first smartphone using the next-generation technology.

One company is unmoved by the hype: Apple.

It’s a good bet that the consumer electronics titan, which on Wednesday unveiled three new iPhones and a new Apple Watch, will opt out of putting 5G into its next iPhone. And it’s still a question as to whether the cellular tech may show up in an iPhone by 2020.

Apple likes to wait to get the kinks out of emerging technologies before committing them to its products. It lagged well behind its Android counterparts in adopting mobile payments and wireless charging, and it was at least a generation behind in adopting 3G and 4G LTE cellular capabilities. Most industry analysts expect the same lag with 5G, even as the technology races toward reality.

“5G is arriving a little quicker than everyone expected,” said Ian Fogg, an analyst for OpenSignal, which collects and analyzes data from mobile networks.

If Apple does take the slow road, it would stand as one of the few companies that isn’t immediately embracing 5G, the next generation of wireless technology poised to change the world. There’s been a lot of hype and bluster around 5G, but its enhanced speed, responsiveness and ability to handle multiple devices beyond your phone could change the way we live.

Given the excitement over 5G, it’s easy to see why other companies, from wireless carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile to telecom equipment makers like Nokia and phone makers like Samsung are jumping in — this is another potential feature to crow about.

That Apple has shied away from 5G is further evidence that the company doesn’t need any help generating its own hype, as if this week’s launch of new, pricier iPhones wasn’t reminder enough.

The company wasn’t available to provide a comment.

Slow follower

A decade ago, the original iPhone marked a huge leap for smartphones. Its touchscreen interface and full browser capability, among other features, revolutionized what a smartphone could be.

Except for that slow, slow cellular connection. As we sit upon the cusp of a 5G world, it’s easy to forget that the original iPhone had a 2G radio. You felt the network schlepping along as a website loaded bit by bit.

At the time, other phones had already moved to the faster 3G network. Apple didn’t include the capability until a year later with the second-generation iPhone 3G. Likewise, the first iPhone with a 4G LTE connection was 2013’s iPhone 5, more than two years after Verizon unveiled its first batch of 4G smartphones.

Last year, when Android smartphones were going supersonic with Gigabit LTE speeds, Apple stayed mum on that technology as it introduced the iPhone X and the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus.

It wasn’t until this year’s iPhone XS, XS Max and XR that Apple cozied up to Gigabit LTE. (Want to know more about the network technology? Check out this Gigabit LTE explainer.)

Why the slow adoption? Apple has to consider what it’s packing into a smartphone and just how many people will be able to take advantage of each feature. Gigabit LTE only saw adoption in select markets around the world, which likely didn’t justify the move there.

“Smartphone design is all about the trade-offs,” Fogg said in a report. “It’s impossible to fit everything into a small handheld device.”

Competitive hype

But the public’s awareness of cellular technology, and the need for a speedy connection, is far more prevalent than when those 3G and 4G networks emerged. So when competitors start talking about 5G, it may be a message that Apple won’t be able to ignore because consumers more fully understand the advantage.

Apple’s only benefit is that 5G deployments will be limited at first, even in the US, where the carriers are aggressively promising multiple cities with the next-generation service. Experts see more broad adoption by 2020 or beyond.

Smartphone design is all about the trade-offs. It’s impossible to fit everything into a small handheld device. -Ian Fogg

Not that Apple could jump into 5G early if it wanted to. Qualcomm is supplying the modems that will go into early 5G smartphones, slated to arrive in the first half of 2019. Apple ceased using Qualcomm modems because of a legal dispute over the terms of its former relationship. Instead, it uses Intel modems.

“What complicates things is the current dispute with Qualcomm,” said Ross Rubin, an analyst for Reticle Research.

Intel, which supplies modems for the iPhone, says its 5G modem will be ready for commercial devices in the second half of 2019, with broader deployment in 2020. The company, however, declined to talk about specific customers.

With 5G networks launching throughout the US, Korea and China over the next several months, those carriers are going to need compatible smartphones to talk about. Apple may be facing a situation in which key global competitors like Samsung and Huawei loudly tout the benefits of 5G along their carrier partners, giving them an advantage.

Still, that doesn’t have too many analysts concerned.

“I don’t think there’s any need for a 5G phone,” said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research, adding that she sees Apple going to 5G in 2020 at the earliest.

Apple going at it alone?

The other option is Apple taking advantage of the generational shift in network technology and bringing the modem in-house.

It’s not a ridiculous notion.

Apple already designs its own processor, the latest being the A12 Bionic chip powering the iPhone XS, XS Max and XR. It has its own custom Bluetooth chip for a speedier connection to its AirPods and Beats headphones. When Apple took a firmer hold of camera technology back in 2011, it went from a mediocre experience to one of the premiere smartphone cameras in the industry, Fogg said.

Building a modem is hard. Qualcomm has spent decades perfecting the craft, and there’s a reason Intel struggled for years before winning Apple’s business. But Apple has the resources to pour into this area, and a deep dive would allow it to craft a modem well tuned to its products.

“It gives them the ability to innovate on their own schedule and do things differently,” he said.

Just don’t hold your breath for that 5G modem to show up anytime soon.

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