For years, MWC has been a central source of 5G anticipation fuel. This year, though, is clearly the cellular technology's coming-out party. In any other year, the arrival of a smartphone with a folding display or second screen would be enough to ensure that a company was on the cutting edge of mobile technology. This year, though, the companies that introduced such flagships had to anticipate 5G proliferation. Even HTC, which did not introduce a new smartphone at MWC, had a unique 5G product announcement. In the run-up to Mobile World Congress, US consumers were more than three times as likely to share stories about 5G than folding phones, according to ShareThis (a Reticle Research client).
But half a world away from the sprawling trade show, the distance between Barcelona and Cupertino has been more than geographic. While Apple's strongest competitors have been singing the praises of 5G, there has been nary a peep about the benefits of the new technology from the iPhone maker. Of course, that is in line with Apple's historical reticence when it comes to specific features of its forthcoming phones and tablets. But 5G is one of those crucial technologies that removes any doubt of it eventually finding its way into Apple's products -- well beyond smartphones, as I argued last September. It could be the breakthrough that finally entices the company to include cellular connectivity in its laptops. It could hold the key to a new ARKit-savvy headset that steals the mixed reality mantle from Microsoft. Or its low-power capabilities could drive any number of connected sensors designed to be worn or placed around a home.
It may take years to find out. Let's look at the history of Apple's adoption of new cellular technology generations. Apple has been behind current cellular generations from from the start. Verizon launched the nation's first major 3G network in 2002, and one of the earliest 3G smartphones (the HTC Universal) shipped in 2005. The first iPhone shipped two years later without 3G; that would arrive in 2008. Verizon would again be first to launch the first major 4G LTE network at the end of 2010. But Apple would not offer 4G LTE support until 2012 with the iPhone 5.
The delay in supporting these network technologies did nothing to stymie Apple's unprecedented revenue run as the iPhone grew. But the competitive dynamic is different than it was in those days. In the markets where 5G will have the most immediate impact, Apple's phone business has cooled off. It is also being besieged by a phalanx of increasingly attractive midtier Android devices from the likes of Nokia, OnePlus, Motorola, and others that are more focused on hitting the sweet spot of consumer value than dazzling with folding capability.
Also: 5G mobile networks: A cheat sheet TechRepublic
Apple's 5G timeline is partially dictated by its legal entanglements with Qualcomm and the development of Intel's 5G modems, which won't arrive until next year at the earliest. While the company has diverged from its 'tick-tock" approach to refining iPhone models every other year, we might expect it to introduce a design departure in 2019 to answer the numerous improvements we have seen in the Galaxy S10 devices, even if it doesn't opt for a folding phone. That would leave a window to drive 2020 excitement with 5G around the time US deployments begin to mature. If Apple has to hold back longer on 5G, it would represent late adoption even in the context of the company's history and be a glaring competitive gap.
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