Apple's Sitting Out the 5G Party — It's the Right Move

This week, a lot of the focus of the tech industry was on Hawaii, of all places. That was where Qualcomm was putting on a three-ring circus (or was it a luau?) in service of the forthcoming rollout of 5G cellular networks, highlighting the company's strong position as a provider of 5G-capable chips for smartphones, namely the newly announced Snapdragon 855.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Meanwhile, it looks like the iPhone will be sitting out the initial the 5G rollout, with reports suggesting that Apple won't have a 5G-compatible iPhone until 2020, because Intel can't supply the modem chips in time and Apple hasn't spoken to Qualcomm since their band broke up last year.

Catastrophe! How can Apple survive without 5G iPhones until 2020?

Here's how: The same way the company survived being way behind on 3G and LTE technologies, both of which it embraced long after its competitors did.

5G is ready, but are we?

It might be hard to believe, given all the hype and enthusiasm emanating from Maui this week, but I'm not particularly convinced there's much consumer demand for a dramatically faster cellular network today. I'm not trying to say that LTE is as fast as we'll ever need — of course, 5G is as inevitable as a 6G network will be one day. But today's LTE speeds are plenty good enough for the ways most people use their smartphones.

You know who benefits most when a new cellular standard is rolled out? Tech companies that want to flog new products, infrastructure companies that stand to sell lots of new equipment, and carriers that want to find ways to differentiate themselves from their competition and charge their customers more.

Cellular rollouts take a long, long time. 5G will take longer than most, because it requires more physical antennas to cover smaller areas. That will require more navigation of local government regulations and more real-estate negotiations. And depending on where you live, you may not be much of a priority, so you'll get 5G late, if at all. Downtown cores of major cities will get lit up with 5G coverage quickly, but after that, there are a lot of question marks.

Credit: Dennizn/

(Image credit: Dennizn/

Then there's the effect new cellular tech has on phone hardware itself. Whenever a new cellular standard has been introduced, phones have had to be compromised to support them. They can get thicker and heavier, run hotter, and — perhaps most concerning — burn through battery.

By hovering above the fray during a chaotic build-out, Apple avoids all of this. And when a 5G iPhone finally appears in a market where 5G networks have filled up the coverage maps and worked out all the bugs, it will almost be the ultimate seal of approval for the new tech.

What Apple might do

With all that said, it's still a bit hard to believe that Apple won't address the 5G market until September 2020. Cellular networks take time to build out, but that target date for a 5G iPhone is 22 months away. While I wouldn't put it past Apple to wait it out, there's another scenario that's worth considering.

Think back to 2011, when Apple's iPhone exclusivity deal with AT&T lapsed. The company released a new version of the iPhone 4 that worked with Verizon, seven months after the original version of the iPhone 4 launched. If Apple feels pressure to get on the 5G bandwagon, and if Intel's 5G radios won't be available until early 2020, perhaps Apple would consider releasing a mid-generation 5G version of whatever next year's flagship iPhone models are.

MORE: I Just Tried 5G for the First Time: Here's What It Lets You Do

It's not a crazy idea. Samsung is, by all accounts, planning to do the same thing with its Galaxy line next year, namely, release a 5G version of a few phone models just a month or two after the original release. And OnePlus' 5G phone will apparently be separate from its regular lineup of flagship phones.

Apple’s 5G outlook

In any event, Apple will support 5G when it's ready. In the meantime, it'll sit out the initial battle — and probably not suffer any ill effects. It might be hard to accept in all the excitement (and marketing money) that surrounds the impending rollout of 5G, but launching new cellular networks takes time. And in the past, Apple's entry has marked the moment that the thing is ready for prime time.

Boosters of 5G say this time will be different. We'll see. I wouldn't bet against Apple, given its track record.

Jason Snell was lead editor of Macworld for more than a decade and still contributes a weekly column there. He's currently running the Six Colors blog, which covers all of Apple's doings, and he's the creative force behind The Incomparable, a weekly pop culture podcast and network of related shows.