Why 2020 Will Be the Year of 5G

eWEEK TREND ANALYSIS: Verizon, Xiaomi, Motorola and Nokia make news at recent Qualcomm industry event.

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I’m writing this from the annual Qualcomm media and analyst event in lovely Maui, Hawaii. One of the reasons the event is being held in Hawaii is that this state is apparently the most aggressive in rolling out this technology. According to Qualcomm. the U.S. is currently ahead in 5G with millimeter wave deployment; Verizon took the stage to say its plan will be the most aggressive with this technology. As a side note, Verizon of late has been one of the most aggressive with innovative phones.

Even though Cisco Systems isn’t at this event, I had a chance to chat with a rep about 5G last month, and given they have a long sales cycle, I believed they would have the best idea of whether the rollout was real or simply wishful thinking. Cisco expects that we’ll be close to critical mass by the end of 2020, concurring with Qualcomm that 2020 is the year of 5G with millimeter wave.  

Adding to this is Apple’s announcement that it expects to sell 100 million phones next year, largely driven by 5G purchases. You can’t get to that number unless millions of people with brand-new iPhones also must flip to not-yet-shipping iPhones with 5G.  

Let’s talk about what that means.

Hold for a 5G Phone

I just bought a new phone, the Motorola One Action, and you’d think I’d follow my own advice, but this phone was on sale for $300 when I bought it. Sadly, it dropped to $250 during Black Friday/Cyber Monday, but I needed something with Android 9 and couldn’t wait. However, were I buying a $1,000+ phone, I would have waited for a 5G phone.

One of the things Verizon pointed out on stage is that you don’t just want 5G, but you want 5G and millimeter wave, because millimeter wave is what ensures that you get the full performance of this new technology. Not all phones will have both technologies, and without both, you may be losing considerable performance indoors or areas with physical obstructions where millimeter wave is most likely to be used. Think office buildings, stadiums, convention centers and hotels. This last one is problematic, because that is where you are likely to want the extra bandwidth for entertainment.

Motorola may turn out to be the most aggressive with phones using this technology. I’ve been very impressed with the comprehensive nature of their lines and, as noted above, some of the incredible values in their lower-cost offerings.  It may make them particularly interesting to watch next year because there is a good chance they will be the most aggressive with affordable 5G phones.  

Xiaomi is another hardware company worth watching. Better known in Asia and parts of Europe than the U.S., this is one of the Asian firms that has been very aggressive with 5G products. They announced their Mi 10 phone using the Qualcomm 865 chipset, which is being presented as the most highly ranked in in the coming 5G wave. There were a lot of Asian reporters and analysts in the audience, and they appeared to be huge Mi 10 fans based on the cheers and applause when this phone was announced.

They showed one of the first 108MP smartphone cameras, which allow you to see incredibly high detail. It showed 960 frame per second video, which provided incredible slow-motion effects.  Thy also showed the Mi MIX Alpha with a wrap-around 180-degree display, virtual buttons on the side. I’m not sure how practical it is, but it looked amazing. They even had a pretty cool 36-hour smartwatch that is also moving to 5G eventually.

Oppo, another aggressive Asian Smartphone supplier took the stage next, and they too announced an aggressive roll out of the Snapdragon 865 phone coming next year. They were followed by HMD Global, the new Nokia. I haven’t seen that brand in a long time, Nokia used to be the world leader in cell phones but struggled when the market flipped to smartphones. NOKIA’s unique angle is to make their phones future proof--at least regarding wireless connectivity. They are also leading with Zeiss imaging, and Nokia was once known for having the leading cameras on smartphones. It is interesting to note that they seem to be more focused on the lower cost but also on the very capable 765 Qualcomm platform.

Other improvements

Clearly, based on the presentations, camera capability is going to take a huge jump. But another area that will advance is through screen fingerprint recognition, which will be critical for the MI MIX phone that I’m suddenly lusting after.  Another interesting change is a modular approach to Qualcomm features which means that not all Qualcomm 765/865 phones will have the same feature set.

Now one of the things that was presented at the end of this opening session was a group of professional entertainers who plan to use 5G to connect to their fans in mass at events. Because 5G and millimeter wave should have far more bandwidth than 4G, the collective experience and the opportunity to do things that connect the audience to the entertainer in ways we currently can’t really imagine. Think of active blends of fan live streams fed to the screen behind the entertainer, for instance, at any time your stream could be on the big screen.  

Wrapping Up

One thing that is clear to me about 5G is that it is going to get a lot of people to think differently about both phone design and what you can now do with the things.  In terms of phone design, I was most fascinated by the Xiaomi Mi MIX with its wrap-around screen. Effectively, the entire phone was a screen; front, back, and edges. Software for it will be problematic, but in terms of status it should make the odd three-eyed iPhone look ancient. I can picture folks stopping and asking, “What the hell is that?”  The Samsung Fold and Motorola Flip are more practical, but in terms of just catching attention, the Xiaomi takes the lead.  

My advice is that if you are in the market for a smartphone soon, you should wait until after CES and Mobile World Congress next quarter before deciding. You may still choose a 4G phone, because they’ll be huge bargains at that time, but you’ll know what you are giving up by doing so and are likely to regret your decision less as a result.

Rob Enderle is a principal at Enderle Group. He is a nationally recognized analyst and a longtime contributor to QuinStreet publications and Pund-IT.