The technology’s big use case was a mystery—there were smartphones and apps of a sort, but the announcement of the first iPhone was still months away; Apple was yet to revolutionize the presentation of mobile programs in a way that would lead to mass-market adoption.
I was reminded of this situation by two pieces of commentary in the last day, this time regarding 5G.
One was Tae Kim’s Bloomberg piece on Apple’s historic $2 trillion valuation, which noted that—in the context of the pandemic—it could prove difficult for the company to convince economically-insecure Americans to buy expensive 5G iPhones. “Further, I’m still skeptical there will be new apps anytime soon that will need the faster fifth-generation wireless speeds, making phone upgrades less compelling,” Kim wrote.
Personally, I suspect many phone users will be keen to upgrade their devices if only because relentless disinfection with potent chemicals has damaged their screens. But the argument is valid; early adopters will usually have to wait a while for that choice to bear fruit.
The other piece came this morning from Iain Morris, news editor at telecoms trade outlet Light Reading, who noted that early deployers of 5G in East Asia are still waiting to see results. In Japan, takeup is low. In South Korea, a lot of people have bought 5G phones, but they aren’t spending more on mobile services as a result. Looks like a similar story in China, too—and as for the much-vaunted business applications of 5G, he wrote, “there are few real-world examples that cannot squeeze into 4G or Wi-Fi.”
Morris’s point is that, for all the hype about 5G being the prize in some grand, global race, its rewards are “far less obvious” than those in the arms, space or vaccine races.
While some politicians see 5G as “central to the way economies will function in the future and the way our countries will secure themselves”—the words of hawkish U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, backing the American assault on Huawei—Morris argues that the technology is already at risk of fragmentation, and the pandemic could “hinder app development and service innovation for years.”
In short, 5G really isn’t as important as some make it out to be, and won’t be for a good while yet—something worth bearing in mind when governments use it as a rallying cry in their geopolitical squabbles, and when smartphone makers try to get you upgrading to the latest and greatest.