5G is the biggest mobile tech story of the year. Major networks in the US, UK and Europe have launched 5G services, and you don’t have to be a hedge fund manager to afford them. But Apple has not joined in.
Huawei, Samsung, Oppo, LG and OnePlus have all made 5G phones. Sony is working on one. And while withered HTC seems to have put its money on blockchain rather than 5G (that’s right, it really did make a 'blockchain phone'), even it has made a 5G hub.
The big question: why is Apple behind? Let’s look into some of the reasons Apple can arguably afford not to release a 5G iPhone right now, and some of the underlying causes of this delay.
The argument against 5G
That word 'arguably' is important. Apple can make a believable argument that now is not the right time for iPhones to go 5G, using the same angles it has mined since the first iPhone generations.
Namely, Apple introduces features when it can make them smooth and seamless. It likes to guarantee a certain quality of experience. While you rarely get the sense of being a beta tester guinea pig with Androids these days, that was not always the case.
Apple did not mention 5G at its latest iPhone launch. But if Tim Cook had mustered some of that old cocksure Steve Jobs swagger and said something like “5G isn’t good enough for our iPhones yet”, we wouldn’t entirely disagree. Even if we would not for a second believe this was the real reasoning.
We at TechRadar have tested a bunch of different 5G services across several major metropolitan areas, including London and New York, to see how well it works. And the reality is very similar between countries.
5G can be great, but it appears in such fleeting patches across cities that looking for it can start to seem like prospecting for gold. Even when a 5G phone says it has a 5G signal, it’s no guarantee you’ll get 5G speeds.
If you spent 1,500 pounds or dollars on a 5G iPhone and found you only got the speeds all the adverts told you about when you stood at that one bus stop, would you be happy? Of course not.
This becomes a convenient unspoken excuse for the lack of a 5G iPhone. But it is likely not the primary reason we don’t have one, or why Apple hasn’t even mentioned the technology. That 5G is a bit of a work-in-progress mess is what stops this from being a disaster in September 2019. But nothing more.
So what’s the real reason?
The turmoil behind the scenes
“Apple has always been late to adopt any leading technology into its offerings if it is not developed in-house. However, with 5G adoption there were additional reasons,” says Neil Shah of Counterpoint Research.
“The complexity associated with integrating 5G from RF Front End perspective is very high and Apple’s failed attempt to do that with Intel modems and its spat with Qualcomm until April set back Apple at least by 12-14 months to integrate the 5G capability compared to rivals.”
Don’t worry if those two sentences make you feel a bit lost or confused. Neil is a super-smart analyst entrenched in the workings of the big phone tech companies, so there’s a lot to unpack.
Most of today’s 5G phones use a 5G modem called the Snapdragon X50. And most have a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset too.
Apple tried to switch to Intel modems instead of Qualcomm ones in the 2018 generation of iPhones. It used an Intel XMM 7560 modem in the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, following an Apple-Qualcomm ruckus that goes back years.
Apple sued Qualcomm for $1 billion in 2017, claiming the company was charging unfair royalties, which it had to pay for every iPhone produced. Qualcomm counter-sued, claiming Apple gave trade secrets away to Intel, which Apple was trying to mold into a workable (and presumably cheaper) modem-producing alternative.
As Shah says, Apple failed to make Intel’s 5G modem chips function in the context of an iPhone, most likely aging some engineers rather badly in the process.
Apple was in a heated fight with the leading light of 5G, trying to do what it always does: 'owning' the tech in its phones. But the whole situation seemingly deflated entirely in April 2019.
Objection! Drop the case
The multitudinous Qualcomm-Apple lawsuits were all dropped in April 2019, after Apple agreed to pay $4.5 billion to Qualcomm. This may make it sound like the two companies hugged, made up, and planned to walk off hand-in-hand into the 5G sunset. But that does not seem to be the case.
Right as the legal action between Apple and Qualcomm was settled, Intel’s 5G phone operation went dark. It announced its intention to leave the 5G phone modem business altogether, to focus on 5G in other devices like PCs and Internet of Things gadgets.
But it seems this was preparation for Apple’s buy-out of Intel’s 5G phone modem business, which was announced in July 2019. Apple paid $1 billion, and 2,200 Intel employees traded their Intel work passes for Apple ones.
This helps explain Apple’s $4.5 billion payout to Qualcomm. It paid for the rights to use Qualcomm technologies in what will presumably be Apple own brand 5G modems. But it couldn’t work this out in time to make a 5G phone in 2019.
“Apple technically missed the boat to soft launch at least one 5G iPhone model in the Oct 2019 - Sep 2020 financial year,” says Shah. “For Apple’s global SKU strategy makes it all the more difficult as initial 5G deployment would require multiple SKUs for different regions depending upon the spectrum characteristics.”
Different shades of 5G
What are those spectrum characteristics? 5G is a bundle of different technologies and standards, not one. Some networks in the US use different ones to those seen in the UK, for example.
The US government is keen on networks using 'millimeter-wave' 5G. This is the fastest kind of 5G, but its range is shorter than the style of 5G currently used in UK, which uses frequency bands much closer to those of today’s 4G services.
An Apple 5G modem needs to support both of these. 5G is devilishly complicated. Qualcomm’s X50 modem, used in today’s 5G phones, does support both styles, but Apple is currently left playing catch-up.
We currently don’t know for sure if Apple’s first 5G phones will use Qualcomm modems or Intel-tech-soaked Apple ones, but there’s more work to be done either way.
How much time does Apple have to do it? Apple needs to announce a 5G iPhone by the time 5G isn’t restricted to ultra-high-end Android phones, by the time 5G seems 'normal' to us phone buyers.
“5G will go mainstream in second half next year as we will see sub-$500 devices also sporting 5G capabilities in Western markets,” says Shah.
"So we are looking at another 8-10 months or so…. With Qualcomm opening up the capabilities to 6 & 7 series Snapdragon, we will see contributions from brands such as Nokia HMD, Realme, ZTE and others as well.”
The race is on. And judging by this timescale, perhaps we’ll even see Apple break from tradition and announce a 5G iPhone before September 2020.