While Apple remains quiet as usual about its future iPhone plans, pretty much every analyst who watches the company agrees that it’s going to be at least 2020 before we see a 5G iPhone model — a prediction that’s not a big surprise considering Apple’s penchant for caution in adopting new technologies and the problems carriers are already experiencing in rolling out 5G.
However, despite the longer timeframe, some reports are suggesting that Apple may still struggle to find enough components to mass produce a 5G iPhone in time for next year. A new report from Bloomberg points out that Apple is in a less than ideal position for building a 5G iPhone due to its ongoing battle with Qualcomm and its reliance on Intel chips.
Analysts at Cowen have suggested four ways Apple could deal with this problem, but add that none of these are ideal. One analyst even indicated that many industry contacts at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) were surprised that Apple is finding itself in this situation.
Can Apple Get Enough 5G Modem Chips?
While earlier reports have suggested that Intel will have a 5G modem chip ready in time for Apple’s 2020 lineup, it’s less clear whether Intel will be able to produce these chips at the kind of scale that Apple will require. In the past, consumer demand for new iPhones has forced Apple to source modem chips from multiple sources — Qualcomm and Intel. However, with Qualcomm now effectively off the table due to the ongoing battle between the two companies, Intel could struggle to keep up with the necessary demand.
One suggestion is that Apple could simply delay the launch into 2021, “18 months after 5G competition.” It’s also believed that Intel’s modem chips will still be inferior to most competitors — the company’s first-generation 5G chip was plagued with heat and power issues, and the second-gen version has yet to even be released in prototype form for testing. Meanwhile, Qualcomm’s second-gen 5G chip is already expected to be included in smartphones this fall.
Another option would be for Apple to source at least some 5G modem chips from Samsung, although it’s likely Apple would pay a high price for this move. Using 5G modems from Huawei is “off the table” according to analysts, and other companies are farther behind in development than even Intel is.
Isn’t Apple Making Its Own 5G Modem Chips?
The analysis from Cowen, however, seems to completely ignore recent reports that Apple is ramping up its own in-house modem chip engineering, likely as it seems like a long shot for Apple to have its own 5G modem chip ready for next year. Cowen instead suggests that Apple could purchase Intel’s modem business to develop its own modem chip internally, but suggested that while this solution would be reasonable, it would be expensive and very difficult to accomplish for a 2020 iPhone release.
Despite the hype surrounding 5G, it’s also entirely possible that Apple could choose to release only a single 5G model in its 2020 lineup, waiting until supplier conditions improve or in-house engineering efforts bear fruit to go all-in on 5G. Further, holding off until 2021 may not be as big of a problem as some suggest — despite dire warnings from analysts of Apple losing out to competition, the fact is that 5G is still evolving, and the kind of performance that it offers over LTE on a device like an iPhone is unlikely be noticed by the majority of consumers. In the short term, 5G is going to be more of a marketing distinction than a feature that most users will benefit from, and Apple has shown that it rarely cares about implementing new technology simply to allow it to check off a box on a list of features.