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5G has been ho-hum so far. The iPhone 12 gives us a reason to be excited

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The iPhone 11 Pro added a wide-angle lens — a feature other phones already incorporated. 

James Martin/CNET

Sorry to Samsung, Verizon, T-Mobile and everyone else in the mobile industry trying to make Apple is right around the corner with the iPhone 12, which won’t be launching at Apple’s just-announced Sept. 15 event (it’ll likely come later). 

If this were any other year, 5G would already be a much bigger deal. After a mixed start in 2019, 5G coverage has improved, the number of devices — including last month’s Galaxy Note 20 — has grown, and pesky network compatibility issues have largely been resolved. Apple’s next flagship iPhone, widely expected to support 5G, would serve as the capper to a year of 5G excitement. 

Of course, it’s far from a normal year. The coronavirus pandemic has kept millions in their homes, which negates the need for high-speed wireless access on the go. Millions of jobs lost and an uncertain economy mean premium-priced 5G devices are more out of reach than they should be. 

Enter Apple and its uncanny ability to whip consumers into a frenzy over the latest technology that competitors have already embraced (think wireless charging in the iPhone 8). The company is expected to hold its annual iPhone launch event in the coming weeks. In these dire times, something like an Apple event offers a rare bright spot. 

5G, meanwhile, could use a shot in the arm and Apple’s ability to generate tons of excitement. Getting more consumers on those new networks means these carriers have more experience dealing with higher demand, letting them work out the kinks and ultimately provide smoother, faster service. More people using 5G phones also drives the industry to come out with follow-up devices that are slimmer, more power efficient and less expensive — just as it did with 4G. 

Getting broader adoption is also the key to figuring out the killer app for 5G, which even after more than a year still hasn’t really appeared. Keep in mind that services like Uber or livestreaming didn’t take hold until after 4G matured a bit — but with the prior generation, you could at least point to a big jump in speed from 3G. The nationwide 5G speed is only modestly better. 

“For all the posturing of the major carriers saying they have 5G coverage, I have yet to talk to someone (who can) articulate why they must have 5G other than it’s new,” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. 

The need for more adoption but lack of a killer app is a classic chicken-and-the-egg dilemma where Apple could bring a solution. 

Despite the pandemic, a lot of consumers will be looking to upgrade to a new iPhone — some as a way to future-proof themselves for the rise of 5G. Most understand that 5G may not impact them now, but it could be more beneficial down the line — even if they don’t yet know exactly what it is. 

Apple’s done it before, whether it’s talking up wireless charging, mobile payments or wide-angle cameras. Those features — which appeared in rival phones often years before — suddenly become must-have bells and whistles once they arrive on the iPhone. 

“Apple has to launch a 5G iPhone because customers buy phones to last several years,” said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. “Most customers don’t want to buy a phone today and feel it’s fully outdated in six months.” 

Apple doesn’t comment on speculation about potential future products.