Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon at the 2019 Snapdragon Summit touting 5G development.

Qualcomm Writes 5G’s Next Chapter With New Chips, Previews Key CES Theme

Like the “chicken-and-egg” metaphor, many are wondering when 5G will start to take off. Carriers such as T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and AT&T have added support to their respective networks but there are few phones currently 5G-enabled. And for those that can take advantage of the new speed, there are caveats—it’s anything but a perfect system (for now). So is the promise of 5G just marketing hype? When will we start to see the real power of the technology?

Last week’s Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit gave us a good look at what to expect not only in 2020 but in the years ahead. The company unveiled its new lineup of chips and partnerships that it hoped would usher in the next chapter of 5G development. The most consequential of announcements was Qualcomm’s 765 and 865 chips with the former having a 5G modem built inside. Seeing that the company has a dominant hold on the chip industry, many of our devices in the new year could easily be 5G-enabled very quickly. Qualcomm isn’t just building chips for the smartphone but anything (and everything). By doing so, device makers, developers, and the public might soon realize 5G’s potential beyond faster speeds.

Currently, a handful of phones support 5G, including the Samsung Galaxy S10, LG V50 THINQ, Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, some versions of the OnePlus 7 Pro and 7T Pro, and the ZTE Axon 10 Pro, but you can bet 2020 will have more devices in-market, including a 5G iPhone which Qualcomm has said it’s working hard to make sure Apple can deliver. With the proliferation of these devices and how people use mobile devices to control things like their thermostats, televisions, speakers, and more, it would behoove manufacturers to ensure that their smart appliances took advantage of 5G’s promise.

Tech journalist Myriam Joire and host of the “Mobile Tech Podcast“, of which I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest on, says the 5G market is maturing rapidly and it makes sense for Qualcomm to have the new data technology built into everything: “They’re in the business of making modems and [system-on-chips] with built-in modems…” But she emphasized that because the market is rapidly developing, “having affordable high/mid-range chips with build-in 5G is super important for 2020, especially for markets outside the U.S.”

To highlight its ecosystem push, Qualcomm also announced partnerships with Pokemon Go creator Niantic to produce augmented reality glasses, a tie-in with Google to find a secure way for people to store their driver’s license information on their phone, and more. On one hand, it’s encouraging to see Qualcomm getting backed by developer partners. But on the other, as VentureBeat’s Jeremy Horowitz points out, it’s incredibly risky for Qualcomm to bet its 5G fortunes on partners to be equally all-in.

In reality, speed might be the only thing consumers “see” from 5G with most of the magic happening behind the scenes. And when I say “speed”, this includes the pace of data (surfing the internet, playing games, watching shows online, using AR and virtual reality glasses, etc) and how fast queries can be processed by artificial intelligence.

“Qualcomm’s 5G push with 865 and 765 expands the 5G options for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), potentially down to the $400 to $500 market, if you look at where 7xx is used today,” Ubergizmo‘s co-founder and editor Hubert Nguyen told me in a Facebook chat. “Carriers are probably driving the demand for cheaper 5G because the cost per bit, per user, is just better on 5G networks versus 4G. Because carriers are the primary 5G driving force (and handset retailers), OEMs will produce what carriers are asking for.”

To 5G and Beyond, But What About The FTC?

If you look at things from a purely technological standpoint, the availability of 5G support in more devices can be a good thing. It’s also smart for Qualcomm to move into this area in order to remain competitive, though it holds a commanding lead over competitors Intel and Broadcom. But could its advances invite additional scrutiny from the U.S.’s Federal Trade Commission which has levied anti-trust charges against the company?

For most of 2019, Qualcomm had been embroiled in one lawsuit or another over its competitive nature, not only from the FTC but also Apple—the latter surprisingly settled soon after the trial began.

Foreshadowing CES 2020

Though Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Summit took place at the tail-end of the year, its announcements give us a preview of what to expect in the first half of 2020, especially with the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) taking place in less than a month. 5G was a key theme last January but with the latest developments in the technology, a somewhat healthy slate of phones supporting it, and all of the nationwide carriers onboard, 5G will continue to be heavily talked about at the annual show, perhaps more so than everything else. It’s going to be the foundation for many of the innovations announced there.

Both Joire and Nguyen don’t believe that we’ll see a lot of 5G phone announcements at CES, saying that those reveals will happen at MWC in Barcelona come February. Even still, they agree that 5G will be the talk of Las Vegas. “Maui (where the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit was held) set the stage for 5G being big at CES, being there, being real, and not just mmWave like last year,” Joire told me. “Being usable and attainable. That will be one of the themes… A lot less pie in the sky ‘here’s what 5G can do’ and more ‘5G is in your pocket right now so what are you doing with it?'”

Truth be told, we won’t really be seeing Qualcomm’s name in the marquee when it comes to 5G’s public marketing. Instead, many of us will think the development comes from the carriers, misguided or not. “Qualcomm is a key player, but on the ground, it is really the wireless carriers who will make deployments happen,” Nguyen explained. “From a chip perspective, Qualcomm is providing a smartphone platform that extends the potential footprint of 5G to much cheaper handsets, with a pre-qualified (worldwide) radio front-end. We’d say that Qualcomm’s contribution to the consumer side of 5G will be huge.”

This week’s #TechBriefs

Be sure to watch this episode of #TechBriefs on “Digital Trends Live” where I discussed Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Summit with Caleb Denison.