The Industry

Apple Buys into 5G

Apple is coming out with a full range of new 5G iPhones. The phones have been designed to use the full range of new frequencies that the various cellular companies are touting as 5G, up to and including the millimeter wave spectrum offered in center cities by Verizon. In addition to 5G, the phones have new features like a better camera, better ease at using wireless charging, and a lidar scanner. The last change is the most revolutionary since lidar allows apps on the phone to better see and react to the surrounding environment.

But Apple is going all-in on the 5G concept. It’s a natural thing to do since cellular carriers have been talking non-stop about 5G for the last few years. However, by heavily advertising the new phones as 5G capable, Apple is possibly setting themselves up to be the brunt of consumer dissatisfaction when the public realizes that what’s being sold as 5G is just a repackaged version of 4G. The new features from an upgrade in cellular specifications will get rolled out over a decade, like we saw with the transition from 4G to 5G. In terms of the improvements of these new phones, were probably now at 4.1G, which is a far cry from what 5G will be like in ten years.

What I find most disturbing about the whole 5G phenomenon is that the cellular companies have essentially sold the public on the advantages of faster cellular speeds without anybody ever asking the big question of why cellphones need faster speed. Cellphones are, by definition, a single user device. The biggest data application that most people ever do on a cellphone is to watch video. If  4G phone is sufficient to watch video, then what’s the advantage up spending a lot of money to upgrade to 5G? Home broadband needs fast broadband to allow multiple people to use the broadband at the same time, but that isn’t true for a cellphone.

People do get frustrated with smartphones that get poor coverage inside big building, in elevators, in the inevitable cellular dead zones in every town, or rural areas too far away from cell towers. 5G phones won’t fix any of these problems because poor cellular coverage happens in areas that naturally block or can’t receive wireless signals. No technology can make up for lack of wireless signal.

The big new 5G feature in the iPhones is the ability to use all of the different frequencies that the cellular companies are now transmitting. However, these frequencies aren’t additive – if somebody grabs a new ‘5G’ frequency, the bandwidth on that frequency doesn’t add to what they were receiving on 4G. Instead, the user gets whatever frequency is available on the new spectrum channel. In many cases, the new 5G frequencies are lower than traditional cellular frequencies, and so data speeds are going to be a little slower.

The cellular companies are hoping that Apple is successful. The traditional frequencies used for 4G have been getting crowded, particularly in urban areas. Cellular data traffic has been growing at the torrid pace of 24% per year, and the traditional cellular network using big towers is getting overwhelmed.

Cellular companies have been trying to offload the 4G traffic volumes from the traditional cellular networks by opening up thousands of small cell sites. But their biggest hope for relieving 4G was to open up new bands of spectrum – which they have done. Every data connection made on a new frequency band is one that isn’t going to clog up the old and overfull cellular network. Introducing new bands of frequency doesn’t do the cellular networks any good unless people start using the new frequency bands – and that’s where the iPhone is a godsend to cellular companies. Huge volumes of data will finally migrate to the newly opened frequency bands as these new iPhones hit the market.

Unfortunately, users will likely not see any advantages from the change. Users will be migrating connection to a different frequency band, but it’s still 4G. It will be curious to see who takes the heat when the expensive new phones don’t outperform the old phones – will it be Apple or the cellular carriers?


Returning to the Basics

turntableThere is a really interesting trend happening with the electronics and the devices we buy and use. For the past decade we have seen the smartphone kill off numerous other industries by turning their products into apps. Consider the implosion of industries like photography and music and the waning of other devices like PCs. As the chipsets in smartphones have become more powerful they have let our little handheld computers take on more and more tasks that were once performed by other devices.

But it looks like the smartphone is starting to lose some of its zing. People are not fired up to run out and buy the latest phones because the new ones are not dramatically better than the old ones. People are holding on to phones longer and it’s been reported that people are even exploring the potential on their phones less and are using fewer apps. Sales of iPhones are down for the first time along with the price of Apple stock.

Along with this downward trend in smartphones is the resurgence of some of the industries that the smartphone helped to decimate. I travel a lot and for a number of years it has been rare to see anybody but a few obvious foreigners carrying a camera through airports. But all of a sudden they are noticeable again. And this is happening at a time when the cameras in smartphones are getting much better. I know the camera in my new galaxy S7 takes pretty amazing pictures. But there seems to be a desire by people to go back to the past when taking a picture was more complicated, but was also, somehow, more satisfying.

To an old audiophile like me, I am even more blown away by the resurgence of turntables and stereo systems. It’s been reported that the sales of vinyl albums last year was the largest since 1990. In today’s digital music world, a return to analog turntables and vinyl albums is almost like stepping into a time machine.

It seems that the smartphone is transitioning from being exciting new technology and is now just considered as an everyday tool. I can’t imagine buying a new phone now unless I am having noticeable problems with my current phone. It’s hard to imagine a smartphone improvement amazing enough to lure me to upgrade otherwise.

There are a number of technologists who predict that within a decade or so that smartphones will become a thing of the past. Let’s face it, it can be a hassle to always remember to carry your phone everywhere and to always protect it against getting wet or breaking. Sometimes carrying a smartphone feels like more of a burden than a benefit.

Futurists differ in what they predict will replace the smartphone. Some think it will be wearables, some think it will be some sort of virtual reality device such as glasses, and some even think that we’ll transition to implants of some sort. All of these possible futures have one thing in common – the computer will be automatically with us and we’ll barely notice it as a separate device. Many predict that connectivity and technology will become naturally integrated into our daily lives.

I’m now of an age when I’ve seen a lot of technology come and go. There are so many technologies that have grown huge and within a decade or less disappeared to be replaced by something else. I owned a lot of it – reel-to-reel tape records, scientific calculators, 8-track tape players, VCRs, digital cameras, and iPods. And along with many of these devices, the companies that made them often faded along with the devices.

It’s a bit hard to think that we could be a decade away from a time when the smartphone as we know it has been replaced by something better. The smartphone has probably been the most disruptive technology in my lifetime, except perhaps for the PC. But its days are most likely numbered like every other technology we’ve seen come and go over the past fifty years.

I have always been intrigued by new technology as it has come along. But I now regret having finally given away my hundreds of albums when I decided that analog music was dead. Why didn’t somebody tell me that turntables would be back?

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