As 5G networks are being planned, tested and readied for eventual deployment across the United States by 2020, not all smartphone vendors appear to have the same schedules when it comes to introducing 5G handsets into the marketplace.
In Apple's case, the company may not debut a 5G-ready iPhone until 2020, which is later than some of its largest competitors, including Samsung, according to a Nov. 2 story by Fast Company.
The report, which was based on a source with knowledge of Apple's plans, said the company plans to use Intel's coming 8161 5G modem chips in iPhones starting in 2020. Intel has been doing development work on its 8060 modem chips to prototype and test the 5G iPhone, but there have been heat dissipation problems with the testing so far due to high transistor density in the chips, the report continued. Apple plans to use Intel 5G chips for all of its iPhones.
Samsung and other smartphone makers will likely be debuting some of their 5G-ready handsets at the MWC 2019 event in Barcelona, Spain, in late February of 2019, even as 5G networks and standards are still unfolding. The first 5G networks will reportedly be ready for use in 2020, according to industry sources.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment from eWEEK.
Several IT analysts told eWEEK that Apple's approach to wait until 2020 to roll out 5G handsets is not unexpected.
"This may be the least surprising Apple rumor ever," said Avi Greengart, an analyst with GlobalData. "Samsung, LG and HTC have used network technology rollouts to piggyback on carrier marketing campaigns, but Apple has been historically slow to adopt new wireless networking technologies, starting from the very first iPhone which had EDGE rather than 3G."
The company that is ahead in the race to build 5G mobile chipsets is Qualcomm, said Greengart, but Apple can't use Qualcomm’s chips because the two companies have been involved for some time in an expensive IP royalty dispute that continues.
"Apple has been shifting its modem business to Intel. However, even if Apple was using Qualcomm modems, I highly doubt that we would see a 5G iPhone in 2019—and certainly not in the first half of the year," he said. "5G smartphones from Samsung, LG, OnePlus and others will be launching early next year, but the network buildouts will not be complete for a while."
Apple's delay could potentially have some positive effects, he said. "As much as carriers would like to have Apple's support from the outset, the fact that Apple doesn't tend to jump in early gives them time to roll out and test their networks before the inevitable wave of iPhones hits."
Another analyst, Charles King, principal of Pund-IT, said the bigger issue isn't when 5G-enabled iPhones are released, but when workable, dependable, commercial 5G-ready networks are actually ready to handle the new technology. "Without those, owning a 5G phone will be like owning a Ferrari in the most remote parts of Death Valley. A car that goes 200 mph is pretty useless if gravel and dirt roads are the only available thoroughfares."
Apple's apparent delay in bringing out 5G phones also makes sense, since like previous wireless network upgrades, initial 5G availability will be limited to a handful of big cities, with others coming online over the course of months and years, said King. "Then there's the issue of media that's fully 5G-enabled. It's a long game, so Apple is better off following its own strategy."
Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group, said there could be other reasons for Apple's reported pause when it comes to 5G.
"Apple is already dealing with reduced demand and a lack of year-over-year unit growth," said Enderle. "With the rollout of 5G next year this lack of timeliness could cause more folks to defer getting new phones or even consider migrating to another vendor. This is likely one of the reasons Apple is ceasing to report unit volume because, for a time, they can conceal this with price increases though there is likely a ceiling for what someone is willing to pay for a smartphone."