‘Hi, Speed:’ Apple walks the tightrope of embracing 5G

A few hours after this newsletter hits your in-box, Apple will host an online product event at which it is widely expected to unveil the 20th iteration of its iconic smartphone. The tech giant announced the event last week on its website. Apple executives, ever the masters of savvy marketing, […]

A few hours after this newsletter hits your in-box, Apple will host an online product event at which it is widely expected to unveil the 20th iteration of its iconic smartphone.

The tech giant announced the event last week on its website. Apple executives, ever the masters of savvy marketing, won’t reveal what they plan to unveil. But a steady drip of leaks and supplier reports have stoked anticipation among Apple fans and industry analysts.

If the rumor mill is right, Apple will introduce a new generation of iPhones that includes four new versions, with faster processing chips, a boxier design, larger and smaller size options than those offered for the iPhone 11, and jazzy new colors options.

But what’s grabbing the biggest headlines is speculation that the new iPhone will come equipped with 5G—fifth generation wireless technology that, at least in theory, will operate at speeds of ten or 20 times faster than current 4G wireless networks.

Apple won’t confirm that, but gave us a wink. The tagline for this morning’s event: “Hi, Speed.”

Apple lags its global rivals in joining the 5G revolution. As the Wall Street Journal points out, nearly all of Apple’s major competitors, including South Korea’s Samsung and China’s Huawei Technologies, introduced 5G phones last year.

China, where the state has declared 5G a national priority, has an early lead over the U.S. in building out its high-speed wireless network. The nation already has built more than 450,000 5G base stations, by some accounts, and has signed up more than 110 million 5G subscribers. In this year’s second quarter, China accounted for more than three-quarters of 5G device shipments, according to Counterpoint Research.

In the U.S., where 5G coverage is far more limited, market intelligence firm IDC pegs sales of 5G-enabled devices in this year’s first half at 4.2 million, about 7.5% of total domestic smartphone sales.

Apple’s belated embrace of the technology will go a long way toward taking it mainstream. Analysts expect the iPhone 12, as the device has been dubbed, to be a blockbuster. This is the first major revamp of the iPhone’s design since 2017, when Apple introduced the iPhone X, with facial recognition and wider screens.

Dan Ives, analyst for Wedbush Securities, estimates 40% of Apple users haven’t upgraded their phones for three and a half years, creating a huge opportunity for replacement. He calls iPhone 12 a “once-in-a-decade upgrade opportunity for Apple”—and predicts iPhone sales in the current fiscal year will top the record 231 million devices the company sold in 2015 after the introduction of the iPhone 6 Plus.

Bloomberg reports that Apple has ordered at least 75 million units of the new phone for 2020.

5G has been touted as one of the most transformative technologies of the digital age. Presentations about how 5G will change our lives often conjure the prospect of downloading high-definition movies in the blink of an eye, self-driving vehicles, remote-controlled surgery, real-time video games, and totally automated factories.

But for now, America’s 5G networks mostly rely on low-band wireless spectrum that is slower than high-band spectrum, but more reliable over longer distances.

The most common variety of 5G technology is sub-6GHz, which is used by T-Mobile and delivers speeds that are roughly double that of 4G. A second type of 5G called millimetre Wave, or mmWave, is significantly faster but works over shorter distances. Verizon Communications Inc has the largest mmWave network, but offers it in limited areas. Apple is expected to offer both types of 5G on its premium iPhone 12s, and only sub-6GHz on the more afforable devices.

Either way, as Reuters observes, the rudimentary state of the U.S. 5G network requires Apple to walk a tricky marketing tightrope. The company needs to give consumers a reason to upgrade. But at the same time, it may want to avoid over-promising what 5G can do.

As Boris Metodiev, associate director at the research firm Strategy Analytics, told Reuters: for U.S. consumers having a 5G-enabled smartphone will be “like having a Ferrari…but using it in your local village and you can’t drive up to 200 miles per hour, simply because the roads cannot maintain those speeds.”

It doesn’t help that developers have yet to build any must-have software applications that take advantage of the high-speed networks. Or that 5G remains a deeply misunderstood technology. One recent survey found that half of iPhone owners in the U.S. think they’ve got 5G already. And apparently there are a considerable number of Americans who seem to believe the technology will kill them.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
— clay.chandler@fortune.com

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