Apple is significantly behind competitors on 5G smartphone compatibility, but given the unwavering loyalty of its fan base is this actually more of an issue for operators eager to switch premium subscribers onto their shiny new networks?
The manufacturer’s high-end base are exactly the type of customers many operators covet as 5G converts. This group could be especially lucrative in markets where access to the new network technology carries a premium price tag.
However, given the large number of consumers already sold into the brand and tied to its ecosystem it’s questionable if being a 5G laggard matters to Apple at all.
On previous form and given its well-publicised spat with Qualcomm the lack of early support for 5G from Apple is hardly surprising.
The company was not among the front-runners to add 4G to its smartphones and the long-running dispute with Qualcomm, which supplies modems for many of the first handsets to support the new technology, only ended in April 2019. This was the same month Samsung launched its first 5G device in South Korea.
After patching up its differences with Qualcomm, Apple signed a new supply contract the vendor. Though there have been sporadic rumours Apple was working on production of its own modems it is widely expected this will come much later, with the first 5G iPhones using Qualcomm’s chips.
In an interview with Mobile World Live research manager for IDC’s European devices team Marta Pinto (pictured, right) said being late to the 5G party might actually turn out to be an advantage for the company.
“Samsung had to educate on the benefits of 5G,” she noted adding, “because Apple won’t be introducing the technology they won’t have to explain what a 5G phone is and how people can benefit from services”.
She added in an ideal world operators wanted a “hard sell” of 5G in 2019, but in reality by October 2020 (when Apple’s next flagship is expected) services would be more widely available.
Commenting on the lack of ubiquity of 5G in places where it was available, Pinto said: “It’s hard to sell a higher-priced device in a market where there’s no benefit from the new technology.”
Although 5G was a “nice to have”, she pointed to recent flagship launches from rival vendors, which had not focused on network connectivity and instead promoted devices on other features such as cameras or display technology.
David McQueen, research director at ABI Research (pictured, left), played down the impact on Apple itself, noting if any party was being inconvenienced it was mobile operators, especially in markets where Apple has a large market share such as the US, Japan and Europe.
“Judging by Q4 2019 smartphone shipment market share, Apple doesn’t appear to have suffered too much from not having a 5G variant, as not only did it become lead vendor for the quarter, but also grew its shipments year-on-year and at a time when all of its nearest competitors had at least one flagship 5G model in market.”
In terms of consumer perception, McQueen pointed to the fact it was not unusual for Apple to not be among early adopters of new tech.
“It does impact consumer perception to some extent, with major vendors having upgraded devices that look far too similar to their predecessors, and Apple appears to be the laggard when it comes to integrating new technologies to its portfolio,” he noted.
Like Pinto, he expects Apple to release compatible iPhones later this year, probably powered by Qualcomm modems due to the complexity of developing its own kit.
“The launch date of 5G iPhones would probably make Apple the last of the major manufacturers to release a 5G smartphone,” he added. “It is highly likely that the price of competing 5G Android smartphones will have fallen well below the $400 mark by then.”
“This timing, though, may actually fall in Apple’s favour, as Qualcomm will have achieved a certain level of scale and so Apple is sure to benefit from the availability of cheaper 5G modems.”
McQueen also noted the location of the company’s major markets would also add to manufacturing fees for its 5G handsets, adding: “Apple will almost certainly have to support both mmWave and sub-6GHz spectrum somewhere across its 5G models. The former being a major requirement to serve its vital US market, which will add to cost.”
Although nowhere near being first to market, there is no doubt Apple will eventually shift significant numbers of 5G iPhones. With this there is sure to be a knock-on boost to operators, especially if the device maker focuses on the benefits of the new network technology in its marketing.
There will be some consumers, and nobody knows how many, who were eager to jump on the 5G train early and moved to an alternative brand.
How the movement of these consumers will impact Apple in the long-run remains to be seen, but once you have people out of a closed ecosystem it may be tough to win them back. Much of this will depend on the 5G experience they attained and comparisons between their new handset and their former preferred device.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.Subscribe to our daily newsletter Back