We pretty much all saw it coming; tech pundits have wasted no time in castigating Apple for the lack of 5G support in its 2019 iPhone lineup, with complaints ranging from Apple’s general lack of innovation to dire predictions that this could spell the end of the iPhone’s popularity as people latch onto the many 5G-capable Android smartphones that are already available.
Of course, all of these critiques miss more than a few important points, not the least of which is that 5G isn’t even available in the vast majority of the United States, much less the rest of the world.
It’s an emerging technology that will take some time to not only become more widely available, but also to mature to the point where it’s practical enough to incorporate into mainstream devices like the iPhone, a device for which the priority of most users leans away from bleeding-edge adoption of new technologies in favour of things like stability, performance, and battery life.
Apple Is the Tortoise and Not the Hare
It’s rather astonishing that anybody is surprised at Apple’s choice to delay releasing a 5G iPhone, since this is the exact same approach that the company took with LTE back in the 2010-2012 era, and even 3G before that. Many have probably forgotten by now, but the original iPhone — the device that defined the modern smartphone era — launched with glacially slow EDGE technology at a time when 3G technology had already been around for two years.
As in the old fable of the tortoise and the hare, Apple has long proven that slow and steady wins the race, and it’s often better to wait for technologies to become more ubiquitous and stable before jumping into them, and if this was true with 3G and LTE before, it’s even more true now with 5G, which has its own unique set of challenges.
Amidst all of the noise, CNET takes the more measured approach of pointing out that a lack of 5G is not likely to hurt iPhone sales for a number of reasons, but even goes so far to point out how Apple — and iPhone users by extension — will actually benefit from Apple’s more cautious and measured approach.
Firstly, after testing 5G networks all over the world, CNET found that coverage and performance was scattershot at best, often falling back to 4G/LTE even across distances of only a block or two.
Even in the best circumstances, faster 5G speeds worked within one neighborhood, or perhaps the city center. In the worst, we saw incredibly high fast speeds one intersection at a time, and only outdoors, with 5G frequently falling back to 4G.
Further, those carriers who are — in theory — offering 5G speeds will be charging a premium for the feature, and yet it won’t even be all that widely usable.
More importantly, however, the first-generation 5G hardware is still very much a work in progress, with CNET describing the technology as “a tangled mess” of chips and modems and antennas that have to be properly mixed and matched for the various networks. For example, at this point most of the 5G capable smartphones only work with the carrier they’re purchased from, and you won’t be able to take them to another one.
At this point, even the 5G chips and the 5G modems are separate elements, which means more space taken up inside of your smartphone that could be better used for other things like a bigger battery, which is sort of ironic as the first-generation chips and modems also still require massive amounts of power.
By waiting longer for the technology to mature, Apple sidesteps this early tangle of which phone works in which place when. It’s just the latest example of the company swooping in late with a polished version of technology pioneered by its Android rivals.
On the other hand, there are already new second-generation 5G chips on the horizon that will provide integrated and smaller packages and improved power consumption, allowing future 5G smartphones to be thinner, lighter, and work on multiple carriers. There’s little doubt that by the time Apple delivers a 5G iPhone next year, it will be incorporating these newer chips, resulting in the ability to deliver the kind of quality 5G experience that we all expect from Apple.
Anybody who thinks that the omission of 5G shows a lack of innovation on Apple’s part should consider that the company actually included a significantly more leading-edge and groundbreaking technology. The Ultra Wideband (UWB) chips and radios found in all of Apple’s iPhone 11 models, powered by its new U1 chip, is something that none of its rivals even seem to have on the books right now.
This is the technology that’s expected to power Apple’s rumoured locator tags, allowing you to not only figure out which room your lost keys are in, but which couch cushion they’re under, but will also pave the way for highly accurate indoor navigation. This is technology that’s far ahead of the curve, and as Jason Snell points out at Six Colors, it’s going to be the “beginning of a revolution” akin to when Apple introduced Wi-Fi in the first iBook.