Apple and 5G: It's not about the iPhone

Don't expect the next iPhone to support 5G. Or radical changes when a future one does.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Apple's iPhone X keeps selling, as Q3 services revenue soars. The company also projected better-than-expected revenue in the fourth quarter, indicating good times ahead for its new iPhones.

When Apple introduced the iPhone, it talked about how the device was far ahead of its time in terms of user interface and app capabilities. But it was behind in one respect, not supporting the fastest cellular networks of the day. While the EDGE network speeds led to swipes from competitors and groans from customers, they did little to impede Apple's progress.

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In contrast, HTC -- which produced the first 4G smartphones for Sprint and Verizon -- proved that early network adoption doesn't necessarily translate into a lasting competitive position. Eventually, though, the app economy came into its own on LTE, which narrowed the mobile network experience barrier between cellular and home broadband connections.

(Image: CNET)

Now, after hundreds of millions of LTE iPhones and Android phones have been sold, we stand at the precipice of a change at least as profound as the one from 3G to 4G was: The launch of 5G. The new network standard is set to provide an order of magnitude faster network speed as well as dramatic drops in network latency. With AT&T and Verizon each seeking an angle with which to claim first strike, the launch of 5G will be happening in several US cities within months of the launch of Apple's latest communicator. Despite this, whatever's coming from Apple next week will likely not support these faster connection.

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There's a chance the next one might not, either. As noted, Apple has been a laggard when it comes to embracing new generations of cellular network technology. And this particular transition may be complicated by switching exclusively to Intel modems given its Qualcomm imbroglio.

Yes, we have come a long way since the days when new iPhones had to be activated by connecting to iTunes. With the iPhone contributing more than half of its revenue and the Apple Watch quasi-accessory dominating an emerging category, Apple is certainly a mobile-first company. That said, the iPhone user interface is still in many ways an evolution of the desktop user interface, not something like the Echo Show or Lenovo's Google-driven Smart Display, where the display plays more of a supporting role.

How, then, might the iPhone's eventual embrace of 5G, change it? It's a safe bet that the iPhone avant garde would pour even more cash into Apple's swelling coffers to take advantage of the dramatically improved speed. That said, while the iPhone and its contemporaries have seen major gains in areas such as screen size, cameras, and multitasking over the years, the line of ancestry from the original iPhone to even the iPhone X is easy to trace, with one small cellular concession being the support of cellular FaceTime only on 3G networks in 2012.

Part of this is because, while Apple and its competitors want to take full advantage of the fastest networks, its products must accommodate regions where high-speed cellular networks don't exist or are unreliable. Indeed, with coverage limited to a handful of cities at launch, we should not expect high-volume phone design to change radically even as carriers seek out partners for 5G launch handsets. The first US 5G "phone" that has been announced is a Verizon-supported Motorola Z3 equipped with a 5G Moto Mod -- an extension architecture Lenovo introduced in 2016.

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So, at least for the near term, we can expect Apple to continue delivering iPhones that take advantage of faster network speeds, but do not include any major form factor or user interface changes inspired by such a boost. Most of the expected impact of 5G, after all, revolves around delivery of content, the major forms of which are well-established.

However, a persistent, dramatically faster and more responsive cellular infrastructure could prove a boon to Apple's clear intent to develop a dedicated augmented reality wearable. AR is so strongly identified as a 5G killer app that AT&T has come aboard as a major investor in Magic Leap to be the exclusive cellular network provider. In this, it is likely hoping to rekindle some of the incredible lift it saw as the exclusive carrier for the iPhone at its launch in 2007. But with Apple riding a growing wave of AR developer support, it may put the iPhone launch partners on a course for competition in a new device frontier.

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