Will the Apple/Samsung smartphone duopoly continue with 5G?

ShareTracker concludes 83% of 5G devices currently in the U.S. are Samsung. (Getty Images)

The Samsung/Apple handset duopoly remains strong in the U.S., and the leading smartphone makers look poised to retain their crowns as the next wave of 5G devices are expected to come to market this year.

Store survey analysis conducted by Wave7 Research in December, reported by PCMag, found that Apple and Samsung devices accounted for more than 90% of phones sold at each AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint stores.

“If you walk into a postpaid carrier store, odds are you are going to walk out with an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy phone,” Jeff Moore, principal at Wave7, told FierceWireless. “Anything other than that is sort of a rare exception, like 2% or less.”

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As noted by PCMag, the top selling phones were the iPhone 11 and Galaxy S10.

“I think the Samsung/Apple duopoly will continue in postpaid as far as 5G,” Moore said. “I see clear market leadership throughout 2020 for Samsung, but I think the iPhone launch could be a major catalyst for growth for 5G because of Apple’s marketing machine.”

Slow 5G adoption

When it comes to 5G phones, Apple isn’t expected to launch a 5G iPhone until the second half of this year, while Samsung already has multiple 5G models on the market.

What flavor of 5G the new iPhone will support is also up for debate, with rumors of separate sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave-supported devices, or one that can tap both frequencies. Earlier this month Samsung announced it had shipped more than 6.7 million Galaxy 5G smartphones globally in 2019, but recently released data from ShareTracker shows 5G device adoption in the U.S. was miniscule last year.

ShareTracker matched more than 21,000 5G devices with specific brand and model, including Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10 5G, Note 10+ 5G, S10 5G, LG’s V50 ThinQ 5G, and OnePlus 7 Pro 5G.

“Right now there appears to be a wide gap between 5G hype and the 5G adoption,” according to the company, with research showing 5G phones represented a mere 0.01% of total U.S. smartphones in October.

The data shows adoption of 17,125 Samsung 5G devices including 11,075 Galaxy S10 5Gs, and 5,966 for Verizon’s version of the Note10+5G. That’s followed by just 2,799 LG 5G phones, and a mere 684 for the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G. Since October, both T-Mobile and AT&T launched low-band 5G service, along with new versions of handsets capable of tapping 5G on 600 MHz and 850 MHz (including the OnePlus 5G McLaren and a sub-6 GHz of Galaxy Note 10+ 5G), so figures may have improved.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner: T-Mobile’s OnePlus 5G McLaren impresses, to a point

Techsponential’s Avi Greengart indicated that while 5G presents chances for handset makers other than Apple and Samsung, new options for 5G phones might not mean an uptick in new device adoption in 2020.   

“Technology platform shifts are opportunities for new market entrants, but it is unclear that 5G will drive a major consumer upgrade spree given the nebulous consumer value proposition in the coming year,” Greengart told FierceWireless.  

Samsung leads 5G but Apple to challenge

While adoption may be slow, Samsung with a head start on Apple “is the overwhelming market leader in 5G right now,” according to ShareTracker, which noted Apple will likely challenge Samsung for the top spot once it enters the market.

“This transition could happen early in 2021,” the report noted.

ShareTracker concludes 83% of 5G devices currently in the U.S. are Samsung, a figure Moore said “completely tracks” with what Wave7 Research is seeing in the market right now.

He indicated that Samsung also has a clear advantage this year for 5G.

“To the extent that people do adopt 5G and care about 5G, Samsung will be the big winner because they have the edge – they have the most SKUs out there, they have the most experience with it and they were first out of the gate,” Moore said. “But for sure you can never underestimate the power of Apple once they get their marketing machine going.”

“If [Apple] launches a 5G iPhone in the fall … then that could be a bellwether for the success of 5G in general,” Moore said.

On Tuesday, Wall Street firm UBS raised its Apple target after its smartphone survey data showed more than 20% of respondents saw 5G as a positive factor and improving iPhone purchase intent, according to Seeking Alpha. UBS now expects iPhone sales to hit 196 million in fiscal year 2020.

RELATED: T-Mobile lures new customers to 5G with free smartphones

In the coming year, it looks as though it still comes down primarily to Apple and Samsung for 5G. Strategy Analytics in November said 2020 will be Apple’s time to grab 5G bragging rights, though they expect Samsung to ultimately lead globally.

“It may seem counterintuitive that Apple, which currently has no 5G phones in its portfolio, will be able to pass current 5G market leaders Samsung and Huawei,” said Ken Hyers, director at Strategy Analytics, in a statement. “But with three new 5G models coming next year, Apple merely needs to match its current upgrade rates for newly introduced iPhone models to take the lead next year.”

“Despite the strong showing that is expected for Apple in 5G in 2020, in the longer term Samsung will regain the 5G crown,” Hyers continued. “As more markets cut over to 5G, Samsung will capture the majority of that share by virtue of its dominance of the overall smartphone market and a broader portfolio of 5G devices across more price-bands.”

While the 5G focus is clearly on Samsung and Apple, there are many OEMs with 5G plans. Motorola, for example, promised a high-end 5G smartphone this year, while HMD Global teased plans to introduce a Nokia “5G value flagship” smartphone sometime in 2020. Verizon, meanwhile, told CNET it will offer 20 variants of 5G smartphones in 2020, including lower-priced handsets between $600-$800.

When it comes to newer entrants challenging the Apple/Samsung duopoly, Greengart pointed to some potential for headway.

“Samsung is giving no ground to competitors on 5G – it has the most 5G phone variants in the market today – and Apple is rumored to have a 5G iPhone coming at the end of the year,” Greengart said. “However, folding phones and new price points are certainly areas where Motorola and OnePlus can chip away at Apple and Samsung."

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