After two years, Apple’s legal spats with Qualcomm have come to an anticlimactic end. There’s a lot to parse from the settlement itself, but one main takeaway is that Apple now has a faster path toward building a 5G-compatible iPhone.
Neither company officially specified exactly why two years of sniping came to an end, but there are good reasons to believe that access to Qualcomm’s 5G modems was at the heart of it. Previously, the bad blood between the two companies meant Apple would have to rely on Intel to deliver 5G modems and recent reports hinted that it looked increasingly likely the Cupertino-based tech giant would have to wait until 2021 for Intel’s chip to be ready. Meanwhile, most Android flagship phones are expected to release 5G models this year.
But now, the frenemies have kissed and made up. And almost as soon as that news arrived, Intel announced that it’s dropping out of the 5G modem game. This, combined with news that a six-year licensing deal is part of the Apple-Qualcomm settlement, it seems safe to assume Apple will be using the San Diego chipmaker’s 5G modem. So theoretically, a 5G iPhone could be right around the corner, right?
Well, kinda. In the past, Apple hasn’t always been the fastest at transitioning to emerging tech, especially when it comes to wireless communication speeds. The first iPhone hobbled along on 2G at a time when most other phones had already embraced 3G. In fact, the first 3G-capable phone came out in the early 2000s—five to six years before the first iPhone. Apple devotees had to wait until the iPhone 3G, and the first 4G LTE capable iPhone was the iPhone 5 in 2012. Likewise, Gigabit LTE didn’t come to iPhones until 2018 with the XS and XS Max. Comparatively, the first 4G smartphone ever was the HTC Evo in 2010, while Gigabit LTE came to Android phones in 2017. In each case, Apple has lagged at least a year behind its competitors when it comes to embracing faster wireless speeds.
Even if Apple now has access to Qualcomm’s 5G modems, it’s still unlikely that we’ll see a 5G iPhone this year. Not only is the design for this year’s phone likely already on lock, a Nikkei report claims a source close to the situation says “It is too late for Apple to use Qualcomm’s chips this year, but for 2020 it will purchase modem chips, including 5G modem chips, from the chipmaker for iPhones after finalizing the deal.”
Right now, it looks like the original 2020 timeline for a 5G iPhone is back on track with a Qualcomm modem powering connectivity. And that’s totally fine. We’re still very much in the early stages of 5G deployment, and I’ll share a little a secret with you: LTE is plenty fast for mobile browsing.
So where does that leave reports that Apple is working on its own cellular modems? The short of it is: Not anytime soon. Apple’s settlement with Qualcomm is for six years, with an option for a two-year extension. That buys ample time for Apple to develop competing tech without running afoul of Qualcomm’s many, many patents—and if past history is any indicator, Apple certainly likes to take its time.