Apple’s First 5G iPhone May Not Ship Until 2021, Two Years After Android Rivals: Report

As we dive deeper into 2019, two of the big buzzworthy features talked about in the smartphone world have been folding displays and 5G connectivity. The former is best exemplified by the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X, while the latter will come to fruition later this week with the commercial availability of the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.

Given Apple’s notoriously secretive development process, there is very little insight into what the Cupertino, California-based company has cooked up in terms of 5G-enabled iPhones. However, a new report suggests that these 5G iPhones could arrive much later the original expected. Most analysts and industry pundits have coalesced around the probability that Apple would launch its first 5G iPhones in the fall of 2020, but UBS analyst Timothy Arcuri stated in a report this morning that 5G modem availability is increasingly becoming a problem for the company.

Based on Intel’s current 5G modem timeline and Apple’s timetable to have components lined up for its 2020 iPhone launch, Arcuri reasons that Apple will be forced to wait until 2021 to launch 5G-enabled devices. The sticking point is that Intel is still working to finish development on single-chip 5G solutions that are backwards compatible with legacy networks like 4G LTE and 3G.

intel xmm 8160 modem 3

As we have reported in the past, Apple could always cozy up with MediaTek, but it’s reported that the performance and efficiency of those chips aren’t up to Apple’s standards. Samsung would be another obvious partner, as Apple already has contract with the South Korean electronics giant to deliver OLED panels for its iPhones. 

The best potential outcome for Apple would be that Intel gets its 5G modem development in gear and meets the 2020 launch date, because the other possible alternative is definitely out of the question. We’re talking about Qualcomm of course, which is arguably the current leader in 5G modem development. The company is already shipping its Snapdragon X50 5G chipset and it will be shipping the more advanced Snapdragon X55 later this year. Next year, the company will launch the first SoC with integrated 5G, negating the need for two separate chips.

However, Apple and Qualcomm are currently locked in numerous court battles regarding licensing and smartphone patents. Bottom line, there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that Apple would seek Qualcomm’s assistance. Then again, it’s also possible that Apple could surprise us all and use its own 5G modem, either as a separate component or directly integrated into future A-Series silicon.

The real question, however, is if a 2021 launch will negatively affect Apple. Most of the major U.S. wireless networks are aiming to have nationwide 5G coverage by the end of 2020 into early 2021. If Apple has to wait yet another year to introduce its 5G-capable devices – two years after its Android counterparts – it could put the company at a marketing disadvantage, especially in the critical Chinese market. Apple (and Samsung to a certain extent) have faced increasing pressure in China from homegrown talent like Huawei and Xiaomi which offer flagship-caliber phones for hundreds less.