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Apple now has four roads to a 5G iPhone, each challenging

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Now that the dust has settled from Mobile World Congress 2018’s major 5G wireless announcements, two things are clear: 5G networks are coming even faster than recently expected, and, based on its current relationships with 5G modem suppliers, Apple has a tough road ahead before it launches a 5G iPhone.

Being second or even tenth to market didn’t matter to Apple in 2007, when the first iPhone arrived without 3G network support, or in 2012, when the iPhone 5 shipped two years after early 4G networks. But a lot has changed since then. Apple is now the world’s No. 1 or No. 2 smartphone maker, depending on the quarter, and it depends on iPhones for 1/2 to 2/3 of its revenues. Additionally, its current flagship phone arguably leads the industry in technology and sales. So if Apple decides to wait on 5G, which will certainly be 2019’s biggest new technology, it could simultaneously hurt its stock, market share, and reputation for innovation.

I’m not going to tell you what Apple is going to do, because that has become a Tim Cook-level business decision that may require Apple to work with a partner it doesn’t like. But I am going to outline the four roads Apple is going to choose from, and tell you which direction I think it’s most likely to take.

Road 1: Qualcomm

Normally, Qualcomm would be Apple’s most obvious 5G partner. Qualcomm’s modems have been inside iPhones for years, sometimes alone, and more recently alternating with Intel modems. The San Diego-based chipmaker has also been working on 5G technology for years, pushing to get 5G standardization completed early and signing up dozens of 5G customers.

Above: Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon announces that 19 manufacturers and 18 carriers will be using Snapdragon X50 modems to roll out 5G devices to customers in 2019.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

But Apple and Qualcomm are in the middle of a gigantic legal dispute over 4G patent payments, which has evolved from “largely about money” to “international antitrust battle” status over the past year. The dispute is currently serious enough that Apple has reportedly abandoned Qualcomm entirely for 2018’s new iPhone models, and has been actively working to remove Qualcomm parts from its product families. (That’s no easy task given the varying cellular needs of iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches.)

So why is Qualcomm listed as Road 1? Disputes like this have a way of getting resolved when working together is necessary, and Qualcomm recently settled similar patent licensing issues with another major customer, Samsung. As discussed below, Apple might not have a better option for launching its first 5G phone, and settling with Qualcomm could make future device development a lot easier.

Road 2: Samsung

Conventional wisdom has it that Apple doesn’t really like Samsung — that, as years of lawsuits have established, Apple sees the Korean company as a knock-off artist that made its name trading on obviously copied Apple innovations. Yet Samsung components are inside many Apple devices — sometimes screens, sometimes chips, and yes, sometimes even ideas. Apple’s latest flagship phone, the iPhone X, depended 100 percent on Samsung for its Super Retina display, as rival screen maker LG reportedly couldn’t meet Apple’s quality requirements.

Samsung is already publicly working on 5G devices, having revealed prototype tablets earlier this month, and the Galaxy S10 will almost certainly be 5G-capable. Not surprisingly, Samsung makes 5G modems, too, now with CDMA support, as well as hardware that can be used to provide an entire home with 5G wireless services, including optimized performance for Samsung phones.

That’s either bad news for Apple, which recently exited the wireless router business and won’t get Apple-specific optimizations, or a great opportunity for Apple to get friendlier with its key Korean supplier. All things considered, I’d call Samsung a dark horse possibility at best — it’s hard to imagine Apple swallowing its pride at this point and relying upon another Samsung solution for a key iPhone feature. But given its current legal situation with Qualcomm, it mightn’t have another practical choice.

Road 3: Intel

Intel is listed as Road 3 for Apple, but it could easily become Apple’s 5G partner in one of two situations: if Intel’s 5G modem development is going better than is publicly known, or if Apple is willing to wait past the first generation of 5G devices. Either is a possibility.

In the 4G era, Intel modems have lagged enough behind Qualcomm’s that Apple felt compelled to slow down the Qualcomm chips in some iPhones to perform comparably to Intel modems found in other iPhones. Without detailed specs for Intel’s upcoming XMM8000 series of 5G modems, many people are assuming — perhaps incorrectly — that Intel will again struggle to match Qualcomm’s performance.

Above: Visitors to Intel’s Mobile World Congress booth on Tuesday, February 27, 2018, are given a first look at a 5G-enabled concept PC. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

The big question right now is whether Intel will have any smartphone-ready 5G modem available in 2019. This week, Intel said only that it will have laptop-ready modems available by late 2019 — a long time to wait — and unlike rivals that are already producing early chips, Intel might just miss the entirety of 2019 for phones. Certainly, Apple and Intel know more than they’ve publicly said on this topic, but the lack of any 5G phone announcement from Intel at a show as big as MWC suggests that Apple will need to pick another path.

A road not taken: Huawei

Without spending too many words on this point, it’s fair to say that even though Huawei announced the first commercially available 5G chipset this week, Apple’s not going to touch it.

Because of its relationship with the Chinese government, Huawei’s been under investigation by the U.S. government for the entire 4G generation, and it has been deliberately frozen out of 5G planning in the U.S. (and soon, likely by Australia as well). Many other companies appear set to use Huawei parts, but Apple won’t use any components that would lock it out of selling phones in its home market.

Road 4: Apple

The last road — and one I’m not going to put much faith in for the time being — is Apple having its own 5G modem ready to go next year. It’s widely known that Apple is actively working on wireless chip development, and Apple-designed W-series chips have already appeared in the Apple Watch, AirPods, and Beats headphones.

However, a full modem would be a big step forward for Apple, and a 5G modem is all but unthinkable right now. As much as Apple would probably love to own this particular component in its devices, 5G is so hugely complicated from an engineering and testing standpoint that I can’t see Apple going its own way with the first 5G iPhone. 2020? 2021? Maybe.

One of the issues is antenna design. Qualcomm clued journalists into this ahead of MWC, noting that 5G device makers will need to find ways to keep multiple antennas accessible, lest data speeds drop dramatically. In an effort to address this for particularly reception-challenged 5G millimeter wave modems, Intel’s laptop solution at MWC was a pair of huge kickstands designed to serve as antennas. Apple would never be OK with a solution like that, but it’s going to need to engineer and test something smarter on its own.

Which road will Apple take?

It’s easy to conclude that Apple will likely rely on Qualcomm, Samsung, or Intel for its first (and maybe even its second) 5G iPhones, then switch to its own modem whenever it’s confident in its network compatibility and performance. But that conclusion leaves two key questions: Which company will be its first 5G modem supplier, and when?

If I had to pick just one of these companies as Apple’s most likely partner, it would come down to a choice between Intel and Qualcomm, with Qualcomm in the lead based solely on today’s publicly available information. Despite Intel’s widely-publicized 5G displays at sporting events, the fact that it hasn’t announced smartphone deals suggests that it has probably fallen behind its rivals in some key way. For Apple, that means either waiting for Intel, or choosing between Qualcomm and Samsung. Its dispute with Qualcomm is over money, versus Samsung, which it still deals with despite issues with both money and copying. Settling the lawsuit with Qualcomm would give Apple immediate access to 5G chips and hence the ability to launch a 5G iPhone.

There’s always the possibility that Apple could sit out the first generation of 5G devices — and obviously, there’s precedent for that with 3G and 4G. I think the stakes for Apple are too high at this point, but if the company’s willing to risk sales, its reputation, and its stock price, it could be 2020 before we see the first 5G iPhone. If so, the market for premium 5G smartphones will be Samsung’s to lose.

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Apple redesigns MacBook Pro keyboard

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Apple is finally introducing a replacement to its butterfly keyboard after years of customer complaints.

The company announced on Wednesday a large, expensive MacBook Pro with a keyboard that has been redesigned for the first time in four years.

The computer, which is intended for power users, professionals or anyone who needs a lot of screen space, features a 16-inch retina display, replacing its 15-inch MacBook Pro. It starts at $2,399, but can go all the way up to $6,099 when you tack on additional storage and processing power. The 13-inch entry-level MacBook Pro, which came out earlier this year, starts at $1,299.

The new MacBook Pro promises better battery life, a new Intel Core processor, an updated cooling system and advanced speakers. But the most significant change is the keyboard.

Apple has long faced complaints over broken and sticky keys in its butterfly keyboards — a design with a mechanism under the keys that expands like wings, opening itself up to dust and other debris. The concept allowed Apple to create a slimmer keyboard design, but some tech reviewers have called it Apple’s worst invention of all time.

Now, it’s reverted back to a traditional scissor-style mechanism that most laptops use. The company says the keyboard will have a stable feel and be responsive.

The MacBook Pro comes with many familiar features, including its signature Touch Bar, a fingerprint sensor and Mac apps, but it now offers double the default storage and pricey upgrade options, up to eight terabytes of storage. (This may appeal to people who have large files and wallets.)

The MacBook Pro is available for purchase online Wednesday in space gray or silver colors. It hits stores later this week.

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Apple thinks glasses will replace smartphones

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Apple is planning to launch its first augmented reality (AR) product sometime in 2022. According to a report from The Information, citing sources attending an internal Apple presentation, Cupertino wants to release an augmented reality headset in 2022 and a pair of AR glasses by 2023. These “Apple Glasses” have popped up in previous rumors with an earlier launch date in 2020, but this new report reveals a far more concrete plan than previous accounts.

Product details are thin on the ground, but a few design points pop up in the report. The products will be designed with gaming, video, and virtual meetings in mind, according to Bloomberg. The Apple Glasses AR capabilities hinge on a new 3D sensor system, developed in-house at Apple over several years. Apparently, this is a more advanced form of FaceID technology used in modern iPhones. Apple is allegedly working on lenses that darken when the wearer is using AR. This is to let others know the user is not necessarily paying attention to them.

Apple has about 1,000 engineers working on the AR and VR initiative. CEO Tim Cook has been hot on the idea of AR for a number of years now. The report also mentions plans to begin attracting developers to the platform in 2021. Clearly, this is a major business commitment, not a small side project.

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Apple Glasses to replace the iPhone

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report states that Apple believes augmented reality glasses will eventually replace smartphones. This will occur “in roughly a decade,” according to executives at the presentation. By 2030, Apple expects that the iPhone, and by extension Android phones too, will be obsolete — at least in high-end Western markets.

That’s no easy task. Current AR glasses pair up to a smartphone, which provides the data connectivity, storage, and bulk of the processing capabilities required by AR apps. Moving this entirely into a set of sleek, lightweight glasses will require a number of engineering breakthroughs. Apple’s first-generation AR products certainly won’t offer fully standalone capabilities. You’ll still need a phone in your pocket. Instead, the company is reportedly working on a new operating system, dubbed rOS, to enable existing devices to work with future headsets and glasses.

Barring the technological hurdles, there’s little reason to believe AR glasses can’t replace most of our smartphone needs. Messaging and calls are certainly possible, as is watching video and navigating with real-world map directions. The other hurdle is solving user interaction, something that advances in voice recognition and 3D object detection technology will likely be key to solving.

Augmented reality is already here, but new form factors will enhance the experience.

It’s easy to imagine the possibilities with AR, as some examples have already proven immensely popular. 2016’s Pokémon Go phenomenon was likely many people’s first foray into the world of AR. Today, consumers are using AR for Snapchat filters, real-time text translation, viewing the stars, and kitting our apartments. AR is already useful on smartphones, but AR glasses open up new possibilities for even more useful and engrossing experiences — ranging from in-world games to real-time contextual information on everything from directions to people.

Haven’t we been here before?

Apple certainly isn’t the first company to believe in AR as a future consumer product. Microsoft has been developing HoloLens for years and has just launched HoloLens 2 for businesses with an eye-watering $3,500 price tag. There’s also Google Glass, which was hounded out of the market by privacy advocates in its prototype launch period, although it remains in development for enterprise users. A number of other companies are working on the idea, including Epson, Toshiba, and Vuzix, among others. However, the majority fall under enterprise and specialist products.

Apple is banking on consumer appeal, but that’s a big ask. It is possible Apple Glasses will receive a warmer reception than Google Glass, given the US media’s often more sympathetic coverage of Cupertino over Mountain View. Its launch may also be more prime time ready, providing a robust developer platform and app ecosystem are ready to go at launch. However, consumer privacy concerns regarding camera and video recording, consent, and data collection will be a sticking point.

Privacy concerns and recording consent issues don’t disappear just because it’s Apple.

There’s no getting around the fact that AR glasses will fundamentally change the way we interact with the world and each other, but also the way in which technology interacts with us. Dedicated AR devices, like glasses, will consume even more data about our surroundings, taking in audio and visual cues from our lives to provide and contextualize content. Furthermore, we will likely wear glass throughout even more intimate aspects of our lives than a phone witnesses in our pocket. Having said that, consumers don’t seem too alarmed at the privacy implications of smart home products.

AR and the future of personal computing

Using Google Lens to identify a bunch of bananas as seen on the camera of the OnePlus 7 Pro.

Augmented reality is the inevitable next step in personal and enterprise computing. Its uses are bound to range from the essentials through to entertainment and the mundane. AR is clearly central to Apple’s future product plans, but it’s far from the only company working on the technology. Expect augmented reality to become increasingly popular in smartphones at all price points over the coming years. The next few years in mobile will lay down the building blocks for future AR-first products like Apple Glasses.

We’ll have to see whether wearable products like the Apple Glasses are the form factor that AR inevitably settles in. Perhaps phones will remain the preferred option for their flexibility if nothing else. Predicting the death of the smartphone within a decade is a bold move by Apple, but inevitably the tech world will move on. AR is as likely as any other to be that next big leap.

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Samsung Galaxy S11 hole-punch camera will be tiny – Pocket-lint

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The latest rumour regarding the Samsung Galaxy S11 suggests that the front facing camera will be placed within an even smaller hole-punch cutout than the Note 10.

It’s a relatively minor point on a smartphone that’s likely to be one of 2020’s most impressive devices, but it will mean an improved experience of the screen.

It goes without saying that having a smaller cutout for the camera means that it becomes less intrusive, and won’t block as much of what you have being displayed.

This information comes via @UniverseIce on Twitter, a leaker with a reliable track record in the mobile world.

We’ve already heard that the S11 will come in three different sizes, similar to the Galaxy S10, and that it will have a bigger battery than the S10.

Of course, hole-punch camera cutouts are a temporary measure until mainstream phone manufacturers figure out a way to implement an in-display selfie camera hidden beneath the display panel.

The aim from most of the smartphone makers is to create an edge-to-edge screen with no intrusion at all. It’s why some – like OnePlus and Oppo – have gone for a pop-up camera mechanism rather than have a notch or hole-punch camera at all.

Samsung’s next flagship is expected to launch around its usual timeframe in Spring 2020, kicking off next year’s new wave of high end smartphones.

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