Wednesday is Apple’s big product release day, where analysts expect the company to release the next edition of the iPhone. While the usual upgrades to the screen, CPU, and storage are expected as always, one major lingering question is how the company is going to handle 5G, the next-generation telecommunications standard.
The conventional wisdom among analysts is that Apple will ignore 5G in 2018 and 2019 just as it took extra time to rollout 3G and 4G chipsets in its phones. A typical example of this analysis comes from Chris Smith at BGR, who says that “We already saw what Apple did when 4G LTE came out. The company waited for carriers actually to offer decent coverage before launching the first 4G iPhone. That was the iPhone 5, by the way, which launched more than a year after the first Android-based LTE phones came out.”
I’m not nearly as convinced. There are many reasons for Apple to ignore the tech this year, which I will get to in a moment, but one major factor could drive an earlier discussion of 5G than expected: Apple’s growth markets, particularly in China.
China is becoming one of Apple’s most important markets for its smartphones, and particularly for its flagship iPhone X. It’s greater China revenue in the third quarter of this year was $9.6 billion, and its operating income from the region was just shy of Europe’s. More importantly, greater China is just slightly behind the Americas as the fastest-growing region for Apple’s sales.
That makes 5G a particularly challenging issue for the company. China has made 5G leadership a critical pillar of its industrial strategy, and many analysts believe the country will set the pace for 5G rollouts globally. Furthermore, Chinese consumers are deeply interested in buying premium products and experiences, and adoption for 5G is expected to be strong and rapid.
With the technical specifications around the 5G standard complete, companies are racing to build the chipsets and deploy the infrastructure necessary to enable this new standard in smartphones and other devices. Early networks are expected to be deployed in 2019, and chipset maker Qualcomm has publicly unveiled more than a dozen handset manufacturers who are partnering with it on 5G. For instance, Vivo, a Chinese smartphone manufacturer, announced today that it was developing its first “pre-commercial 5G smartphones” for launch next year.
The speed and timing of the 5G rollout is awkward for Apple, which has traditionally timed its iPhone events for September. It almost certainly will make no announcements this week, but its next iPhone launch would likely be September 2019 — giving Chinese handset manufacturers with early 5G devices nearly exclusive access to the local market for the first three quarters of next year.
Apple would find itself falling behind its competitors in a fast-moving and critical growth market. While the company has built a brand in the country with devoted fans, its place in the market is not nearly as secure as in the U.S., particularly as the trade war between the two nations reaches a fevered pitch.
There’s no doubt that the challenges for Apple to include the technology are immense. First is the patent licensing cost, which Jeremy Horwitz at VentureBeat put at roughly $21 per device, up from around $9 for 4G. Second, the leading American company in 5G is believed to be Qualcomm, which Apple has been fighting in a long-running patent war, to the point that the company has been actively trying to remove Qualcomm equipment from its phones. Apple’s name was notably absent from Qualcomm’s 5G partner list.
While some early chip designs are available, they are hardly ready for primetime, and certainly not for a flagship phone like the iPhone X. Nor do I expect that Apple will imply on Wednesday that the company will support 5G in future releases and dampen enthusiasm for its newly-released devices. No one wants to be told that next year’s devices are going to be better than one released just minutes ago.
Instead, I expect Apple will use smoke signals to clearly demonstrate that it intends to remain at the cutting edge of 5G deployment. That could include joining certain industry trade groups, testing the technology in a more public fashion, and potentially releasing a roadmap next year, say at its Worldwide Developers Conference, which is traditionally held in June and thus earlier in the year than its September iPhone events.
What would be concerning though is if we get to the end of 2018 and into 2019 with nary a peep from the company about its plans for the technology. Given its commitment to China, as well as its leading position within the smartphone market, the company has to engage on the technologies around 5G in a public manner in order to prevent a loss in its competitive position.
Ultimately, much will depend on China Mobile and other telcos in China as well as around the world on how fast they can deploy 5G infrastructure (sadly, it looks increasingly like the U.S. faces a bumpy road in that direction). Beyond gold iPhone rumors, 5G may well be the first time that China drives the company’s product roadmaps, and it should be wary of finding itself on the defensive.