What we know about 5G smartphones (so far)

A forecast from Strategy Analytics shows that Chinese vendors could gain share as 5G prices decline towards 2028. (Strategy Analytics)

5G smartphones are coming, but depending on your device maker or operating system of choice, you may be waiting a year or two before you get in on the fun.

As with previous leaps in wireless technology, routers and hotspots will be among the first devices that can take advantage of next-generation networks. For instance, AT&T said it will start selling the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot later this year. But 5G smartphones will be next in line and marketing efforts around 5G services will follow in kind.

Now that 5G networks are being deployed, almost every major device maker has announced or hinted at plans for 5G smartphones. Some manufacturers covet being first on the market while others will wait for robust network deployment and testing before they release 5G-capable phones.

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“Obviously there are going to be people saying they're first,” but “being first doesn’t get you anything,” said Avi Greengart, research director of consumer devices at GlobalData. Lenovo was the first major manufacturer to announce a 5G-capable phone, but it’s merely a modular accessory that will connect to the back of a Motorola Moto Z3 when it is released early next year.

5G smartphones will ramp up in mid 2019

Genuine 5G smartphones will begin hitting the market next year from the likes of Samsung, LG, OnePlus, Huawei, ZTE and other manufacturers that use Qualcomm’s 5G modem, according to Greengart.

“We do know the supply chain is working on creating antennas and modems that can work on all the frequencies and all the different technologies that carriers are deploying, but I don’t think in the first half of 2019 that’s where the energies are going to be. People are just trying to get something out the door that works, and simply getting it to work when it’s a brand new technology is going to be challenging,” he said.

As such, many of the first 5G smartphones will be tailored for specific carrier networks and made available exclusive to those carriers. “We’re talking about the flagship or unique models to help carriers roll [5G] out,” Greengart said.

During the summer, for example, LG announced it will be releasing its first 5G smartphone on Sprint in the first half of 2019. Samsung’s first 5G-capable phone is also under development, but the company hasn’t shared any details yet and it’s likely to be released in South Korea first sometime next year. (According to Korean media reports, Samsung will release its flagship Galaxy S10 in February and a 5G version of the gadget in March.)

“From a practical perspective in the first six months for sure it won’t matter very much except for people who like to say ‘first,’” Greengart said.

Apple will stick to tradition and wait

Finally, it should be no surprise to hear that Apple’s first 5G smartphone “definitely” won’t be hitting the market in 2019, according to Greengart.

“Apple doesn’t jump on the latest network technologies first. It waits for the networks to be fully deployed,” he said.

“They have a long history going all the way back to the first iPhone supporting [2G],” Greengart added. “The rivals would make fun of Apple for that and people bought iPhones anyway. So, this is not something that’s ever hurt Apple in the past, and it’s unlikely for Apple this time around.”

Indeed, a Fast Company report indicated that Apple will release a 5G iPhone in 2020 with an Intel modem; Intel, for its part, recently announced its XMM 8160 5G modem.

“As much as the carriers would I’m sure have Apple on board first thing, the fact that Apple isn’t the first or the second to jump on new network technology… Apple moves a tremendous volume and that hits a network hard. So, in some ways it’s good that Apple isn’t the first on board. It gives carriers time to test the network before the wave of iPhones hits,” Greengart said.

Vendors will try to leapfrog each other with 5G

The wireless industry has been through this before, jumping from one generation of network technology to the next, and while some promises have been fulfilled others have been delayed or just completely oversold.

“Every time someone says this is what this technology is going to be used for they’re usually wrong,” Greengart said.

However, David Kerr with Strategy Analytics argued that smartphone vendors will look at use 5G as a way to get ahead. "We don't yet know what 5G will drive from a use case standpoint, but that change will lead to smartphone design changes like foldables/rollables, and some vendors will miss that change because they will be too wed to their existing design language, use-cases and legacy positions," he wrote on the company's site

Indeed, Kerr said China's Xiaomi could well grow into the leading 5G smartphone brand in the next decade. "The most China-friendly, India-friendly and US-friendly brand today is Xiaomi. Strong in China, strong in India, about to be strong in US and a growing presence in W. Europe.  Huawei's loss in being unfairly barred from the US market will be Xiaomi's gain. Xiaomi fresh from its IPO has huge funding and has started an aggressive campaign which has seen it breach the top 5 position in many markets," Kerr noted.

But looking back on previous leaps and their effective impact on the industry at large, 3G still stands out most for Greengart.

“I think 3G may have been the most impactful because that hit at the same time as app stores,” he said. The iPhone and Android were also popularized then and enabled users to download apps and transmit data that powered all of the social, location-aware and entertainment options consumers still enjoy today.

“4G made that better and in some cases made it palatable for the first time,” Greengart said. “3G is slow but it’s usable, and given that it coincided or helped the rise of the app economy, that really has transformed the way people live for better and worse.”

For wireless network operators though, many are looking beyond 5G smartphones for additional sources of revenues.

“5G will improve the consumer experience too, but the B2B side is going to be far greater as you go into 5G than it is in previous generations,” Verizon’s CFO Matt Ellis said this week at an investor event, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. “Because of the massive throughput, because of the low latency and a whole host of the other improvements with 5G, we think, over time, the B2B adoption of applications and technologies using 5G in ways that fundamentally changes how their business is run is a significant upside as well. So you've got three major revenue streams versus really only having one of those in 4G and prior technologies. And as we think about the overall 5G model, it's based off increasing the revenue streams available to us.”