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‘Hi, Speed:’ Apple walks the tightrope of embracing 5G

October 13, 2020, 12:43 PM UTC

A few hours after this newsletter hits your in-box, Apple will host an online product event at which it is widely expected to unveil the 20th iteration of its iconic smartphone.

The tech giant announced the event last week on its website. Apple executives, ever the masters of savvy marketing, won’t reveal what they plan to unveil. But a steady drip of leaks and supplier reports have stoked anticipation among Apple fans and industry analysts.

If the rumor mill is right, Apple will introduce a new generation of iPhones that includes four new versions, with faster processing chips, a boxier design, larger and smaller size options than those offered for the iPhone 11, and jazzy new color options.

But what’s grabbing the biggest headlines is speculation that the new iPhone will come equipped with 5G—fifth generation wireless technology that, at least in theory, will operate at speeds of ten or 20 times faster than current 4G wireless networks.

Apple won’t confirm that, but gave us a wink. The tagline for this morning’s event: “Hi, Speed.”

Apple lags its global rivals in joining the 5G revolution. As the Wall Street Journal points out, nearly all of Apple’s major competitors, including South Korea’s Samsung Electronics and China’s Huawei Technologies, introduced 5G phones last year.

China, where the state has declared 5G a national priority, has an early lead over the U.S. in building out its high-speed wireless network. Carriers in that nation already have built more than 450,000 5G base stations and, by some accounts, signed more than 110 million 5G subscribers. In this year’s second quarter, China accounted for more than three-quarters of 5G device shipments, according to Counterpoint Research.

In the U.S., where 5G coverage is far more limited, market intelligence firm IDC pegs sales of 5G-enabled devices in this year’s first half at 4.2 million, about 7.5% of total domestic smartphone sales.

Apple’s belated embrace of the technology will go a long way toward taking it mainstream. Analysts expect the iPhone 12, as the device has been dubbed, to be a blockbuster. This is the first major revamp of the iPhone’s design since 2017, when Apple introduced the iPhone X, with facial recognition and wider screens.

Dan Ives, analyst for Wedbush Securities, estimates 40% of Apple users haven’t upgraded their phones for three and a half years, creating a huge potential demand for replacement. He calls iPhone 12 a “once-in-a-decade upgrade opportunity for Apple”—and predicts iPhone sales in the current fiscal year will top the record 231 million devices the company sold in 2015 after the introduction of the iPhone 6 Plus.

Bloomberg reports that Apple has ordered at least 75 million units of the new phone for 2020.

5G has been touted as one of the most transformative technologies of the digital age. Presentations about how 5G will change our lives often conjure the prospect of downloading high-definition movies in the blink of an eye, self-driving vehicles, remote-controlled surgery, real-time video games, augmented reality, and totally automated factories.

But for now, America’s 5G networks mostly rely on low-band wireless spectrum that is slower than high-band spectrum, but more reliable over longer distances.

The most common variety of 5G technology is sub-6GHz, which is used by T-Mobile and delivers speeds that are roughly double that of 4G. A second type of 5G called millimeter Wave, or mmWave, is significantly faster but works over shorter distances. Verizon Communications Inc has the largest mmWave network, but offers it in limited areas. Apple is expected to offer both types of 5G on its premium iPhone 12s, and only sub-6GHz on the more afforable devices.

Either way, as Reuters observes, the rudimentary state of the U.S. 5G network requires Apple to walk a tricky marketing tightrope. The company needs to give consumers a reason to upgrade. But at the same time, it may want to avoid over-promising what 5G can do.

As Boris Metodiev, associate director at the research firm Strategy Analytics, told Reuters: for U.S. consumers, having a 5G-enabled smartphone will be “like having a Ferrari…but using it in your local village and you can’t drive up to 200 miles per hour, simply because the roads cannot maintain those speeds.”

It doesn’t help that developers have yet to build any must-have software applications that take advantage of the high-speed networks. Or that 5G remains a deeply misunderstood technology. One recent survey found that half of iPhone owners in the U.S. think they’ve got 5G already. Meanwhile, a considerable number of Americans believe the technology will kill them.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
— clay.chandler@fortune.com

NEWS BY DESIGN

Dining out

For many restaurants, creating additional seating space outside has been a lifesaver during the pandemic. In order to keep that option available during the bitter winter months, IDEO partnered with the city of Chicago to crowdsource ideas for how restaurants can continue to seat customers outside—generating ideas beyond the traditional space heater model.

Spun

Adidas partnered with Kram/Weisshaar to create a wholly woven upper, spun by a robot, that can be custom made to the needs of individual athletes. The upper—the body of the shoe that sits on top of the sole—is just concept-proving at this point. It’s the latest in Adidas’ FutureCraft line of shoe innovations.

Looop

H&M’s flagship store in Stockholm has launched a service called Looop where customers can turn in old clothes and have them shredded and reassembled into new clothes within five hours. The machine is limited in what garments it can produce—a scarf, a sweater, or a baby blanket—but H&M hopes to expand the production range over time.

Off white

D&AD announced Naresh Ramchandani, a partner at design firm Pentagram, as the agency’s new president. The appointment came after former vice president Ben Terrett declined the role, eschewing a tradition in which the VP replaces the incumbent president. Terrett said he decided to “stand aside and make space for others” as he sees “too many people who look like me, middle-aged white men, in positions like this.”

Design Bridge

Global design agency Design Bridge appointed 26-year veteran Tim Perkins as the group’s new chairman. Perkins, who established Design Bridge’s studio in Singapore—one of five studios worldwide—will continue to work with Design Bridge CEO John Morris to build client relations. Kasia Bannon, head of the New York studio, will take on Perkins’ former duties as executive vice president.

Boldly go

NASA launched a $23 million toilet, known as the Universal Waste Management System, into space. The toilet is bound for the International Space Station, where it will be installed, tested and—if it works—later used on the Artemis 2 lunar mission. Space toilets are no small feat of engineering but what sets the UWMS system apart from others is that it is the first to be designed with women in mind.

EVENTS BY DESIGN

October

London’s Frieze art fairs went ahead last week, held in galleries at limited capacity rather than in vast exhibition tents strewn across Regent’s Park.

Dutch Design Week is cancelling the real-world elements of this year’s event in Eindhoven as coronavirus case numbers rise in the city. The online portions of the event will continue, October 17-25.

Swiss furniture designer Vitra is hosting its inaugural Vitra Summit October 22-23, bringing together architects, curators and designers to discuss the future of spaces. The event will be online.

November

Dubai’s inaugural architecture festival, d3 Architecture Festival, will run November 11-13 on the sidelines of Dubai Design Week. The event will focus on sustainability—an existential issue for the desert city.

Canada’s annual graphic design fest, DesignThinkers, is running online this year, November 10-21—the first time in the event’s 20-year history that it hasn’t been held in person.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

“If there are needles anywhere nearby—and, on the Internet, there always are—the magnets will pull them in. Remove as many as you want today; more will reappear tomorrow. This is how the system is designed to work.”

Andrew Marantz writes in the New Yorker, taking issue with the narrative posted by Facebook vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg that moderating content on Facebook is like searching for a needle in a haystack. “This metaphor casts Zuckerberg as a hapless victim of fate: day after day, through no fault of his own, his haystack ends up mysteriously full of needles,” Marantz writes.

 

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him tips and ideas at eamon.barrett@fortune.com