Jonathan Margolis, the FT’s erudite technology editor, claimed in the How to Spend It magazine this weekend that “one of the surprises about the iPhone 11 … was that it does not have 5G” and then went on to laud the recently launched Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.
I found that an odd view. Indeed I’m surprised that he thought that it was a surprise. Apple has rarely added network features until they were widely available. That’s both because there needs to be a viable market for a service (if I turn on my expensive 5G phone and don’t see, immediately, a 5G symbol in the top left or right, I will surely feel let down and perhaps worse) and also because Apple will want to be sure components that provide the service are robust, reliable and ready for delivery to as many as 200m phone buyers a year.
Every few years we go through the xG hype cycle. I was closely involved in the 4G rollout some years ago and, despite best efforts, reality was far behind PR for many of the network operators (arguably only EE got delivery done in line with their PR and that was because of some clever reuse of spectrum).
There are plenty of 5G challenges ahead starting with a lack of agreed standards. This, in turn, means risk in buying components which may not be entirely compatible with the final versions. It also means that components are not yet optimised – they are much larger than their 4G equivalents, run much hotter, and take up valuable space that is needed for batteries (which, given those same components will be shorter). And, besides, we know that heat and batteries don’t mix.
There are other challenges ahead for 5G, particularly for operators. Network equipment manufacturing is in the hands of only a few suppliers, installation is a lengthy and cumbersome visit involving many 3rd parties and a dozen visits to each mast, the spectrum available is at a far greater mix of frequencies than previous rollouts (which means modelling and planning are more complicated and that there will be a need for infill masts, especially in highly populated areas) and so on.
The truth is that 5G is still some years away, at a general population level. There will be exceptions – specific use cases – of course. But for most of us, it is 2-3 years away.
So, no, it’s no surprise that Apple hasn’t shipped 5G compatible iPhones. It’s also no surprise that other companies have – some like to be first, some like to claim “me as well”, some want to trial new things to differentiate otherwise lacklustre offerings, and some want to get a sense of how the technology works in the field. This is what makes a market. The early adopters adopt. Some wait a while. Some wait much longer.