5G is the buzzword in the telecommunications and smartphone industry today. It is also fast becoming one of the key features of flagship phones this year. Is Apple going to launch a 5G variant of the iPhone this year? In short, nope. But it has a complicated timeline.
Although Apple engineers reportedly "have been engaged with Intel counterparts for early work on 5G" in 2017, both companies still faced issues in 2018 with Intel's 5G modems having heat dissipation issues which pushed back the timeline for a 5G iPhone launch to 2020.
Bloomberg reported in December 2018 that Apple is likely to wait as long as a year after the initial deployment of 5G networks to release a 5G iPhone. This means that Apple could be holding off plans for a 5G iPhone until at least 2020. However, where would Apple get the 5G modems if it was engaged in a legal dispute with Qualcomm? It began a search for a "cellular modem systems architect" in December 2018 which hints that Apple is looking to design its own modems.
During a testimony trial between Qualcomm and the U.S Federal Trade Commission in January, Apple revealed that it approached Samsung and MediaTek for 5G modems to use in the iPhones. But the company did not say whether it eventually secured a deal for the modems or a 5G iPhone is planned this year.
In February this year, Reuters reported that Apple moved its modem chip engineering team into the in-house hardware technology group. This is interpreted as a sign that radio modem design has been given a higher priority within the company. In the same month, Apple hired Intel's 5G modem developer Umashankar Thyagarajan who was working on the XMM 8160 5G modem.
There were rumors of Huawei being "open" to selling 5G modems to Apple, but the Chinese company shot down the reports. Even if there was a secret deal, the ongoing trade war between the U.S and China could have sunk the deal.
Apple and Qualcomm agreed to end their dispute in April and settled for a multi-year chipset supply deal. This strengthened the earlier reports of Apple looking at a 2020 time frame for a 5G iPhone instead of this year. The deal also caused Intel to exit the 5G smartphone modem market, which Apple eventually acquired the former for US$1 billion. The acquisition is believed to save "years of development work" for Apple as it could take at least five years for Apple to deploy its own 5G modems.
Reliable analyst Kuo claimed in his June report that the first 5G iPhones would launch in 2020 and they will use Qualcomm modems. Apple's own 5G modems are expected to be ready in 2022. A July report by Reuters points to a slightly more aggressive timeline; Apple is said to have plans to use an internally developed 5G modem in some of its products by 2021.