When Apple abruptly called off its lawsuit against Qualcomm last year and signed a deal to use Snapdragon modems in future iPhones, the reason was obvious: It needed next-generation 5G modems for its 2020 devices and, after evaluating all its options, saw no other viable source for the key components. But that doesn’t mean every iPhone will be 5G-capable this year; instead, it’s increasingly clear that Apple will release a mix of 4G and 5G devices in 2020, quite likely following key elements of Samsung’s 2019 Galaxy S10 and Note10 strategy.
To be clear, though Samsung announced its first 5G phone last February, it didn’t flip its entire Galaxy S10 lineup over to 5G, or offer one 5G phone that worked on every available 5G network. Instead, it recognized that millimeter wave 5G was only launching in the United States, while Asia and Europe were favoring sub-6GHz 5G, so it offered separately tuned 5G models for each market. It also used 5G to justify a super-premium phone tier, starting the S10 5G at $1,200 in South Korea and $1,300 in the U.S.
It narrowed that strategy in August when it announced Galaxy Note10 and Note10+ phones, with each available in 5G and non-5G versions. Confusingly, the Note10 5G was only produced for sub-6GHz networks outside of the United States, while the Note10+ 5G was also offered in millimeter wave versions customized for U.S. carriers. In September, Samsung added the Galaxy A90 5G as a much less expensive option for South Korean customers, a move that helped the company ship over 6.7 million 5G phones in 2019.
Though it’s been clear that Apple would follow Samsung’s lead by shipping 5G versions of its flagship phones this year, the specifics weren’t obvious — and they’re still not 100% concrete. Broadly, it’s clear that Apple will release some 4G iPhones and some 5G iPhones in 2020. It’s also quite likely that the company will sell some 5G devices that are only sub-6GHz, and others that support both sub-6GHz and millimeter wave networks.
The key question at this point is how Apple’s 2020 iPhone lineup will look in individual markets. This is where we’ll probably see something very close to what Samsung did last year.
Based on persistent industry chatter, I personally expect that Apple will launch something akin to a 2020 version of the iPhone SE as a smaller alternative to the iPhone 12, which will apparently have a 5.4-inch display (compared with 6- and 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro/Max models). The so-called “iPhone SE2” or “iPhone 9” is more likely to resemble the 4.7-inch iPhone 8 than the 4-inch iPhone SE, and will almost assuredly not have any sort of 5G functionality. It will likely be released well before the iPhone 12, perhaps as soon as March.
The iPhone 12 is where the confusion could come in. Analysts have debated Apple’s flagship device plans for months, with one analyst floating the possibility that Apple will release some iPhone 12 models with sub-6GHz 5G support, and others — perhaps months later — with millimeter wave 5G support. Another analyst, the generally (but not exclusively) reliable Ming-Chi Kuo, has suggested multiple times that Apple will launch combined sub-6GHz and millimeter wave 5G phones in its normal fall time frame this year.
I suspect that Apple will go with one of the following options:
- iPhone 12 (4G only) and iPhone 12 Pro (5G only)
- iPhone 12 (4G or 5G) and iPhone 12 Pro (4G or 5G)
- iPhone 12 (4G or sub-6GHz 5G) and iPhone 12 Pro (4G or sub-6GHz + mmWave 5G)
There are other permutations of these possibilities, but they’re largely variations on 2 and 3. The question is how many 5G iPhone variants there will be.
If Apple wanted to radically simplify things for consumers, option 1 would be the easiest path. It would clearly segment the standard and “Pro” markets and leave fewer SKUs to worry about. The key problem is that consumers would need to accept both a larger device size and a higher price to get 5G. Given how quickly 5G is moving into aggressively priced phones, using Samsung’s initial 2019 super-premium-tier 5G strategy could be dangerous for Apple in late 2020.
Option 2 might be more practical, as Apple could offer iPhone 12 and 12 Pro models in 4G or 5G variants supporting locally available 5G networks. This would let Apple sell 5G phones in more price-sensitive markets such as China without precluding it from also selling upper-tier models with better cameras. Regardless, customers wouldn’t need to worry about sub-6GHz or millimeter wave distinctions; if you buy a “5G” iPhone, it would support whatever flavors of 5G your carrier supports. Theoretically, this should be possible with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 modem.
Apple could complicate things by going with option 3, which has the potential to be a disaster for both its retail stores and customer satisfaction scores. Offering an iPhone 12 that conspicuously supports some 5G connectivity while the iPhone 12 Pro supports all 5G would be hard to explain to customers, and might well lead to plenty of post-purchase complaints. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
I say that because Apple’s past iPhones provide no clear answer as to how it will proceed with the iPhone 12. Years ago, the company could have started the process of producing “world phone” iPhone models that could be shipped and sold everywhere with guaranteed support for all available cellular bands. But for whatever reason — engineering, gray market importing, or something else — the company has instead quietly maintained multiple variants with support for certain local bands, such that the iPhone 11, Pro, and Max each come in at least three regionally different models. Whether this changes in the future remains to be seen.
The 5G market has already evolved since Samsung released its 2019 phones, and following the S10, Note10, and A90 releases, Samsung will be on its fourth set of 5G phones when it announces the Galaxy S20 series next month. I’ll be very surprised if Apple deviates significantly from the 5G marketing or pricing strategies Samsung tested with some success last year, though I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the year-long wait results in broader network support, better pricing, and hopefully breakthrough new features for the iPhone family.