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5G networks

Apple investors uneasy over 5G silence as Asian rivals advance

Lack of in-house chips stands in contrast to Huawei

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at an Apple product launch event in 2018. He has yet to unveil the company's 5G strategy.

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Apple has been stubbornly silent about its strategy for fifth-generation wireless technology, which is expected to cause broad-based and disruptive shifts in the technology landscape.

While its rivals like Samsung Electronics of South Korea and China's Huawei Technologies have said they will unveil 5G-ready products this year, the U.S. tech giant said nothing about how it will respond to this transformative technology at its annual shareholders meeting on Friday. 

The increasingly pronounced delay in its strategic response to the upcoming deployment of 5G cellular networks, which can handle huge amounts of data at lightning speeds with near-zero latency, could cost Apple the trust of its already uneasy shareholders. 

At the MWC19 Barcelona conference on Feb. 25-28, Apple's usual absence from the event was especially conspicuous this year. 

Apple's main rivals unveiled plans to launch 5G smartphones at the world's largest exhibition for the mobile industry.

In addition to Samsung, the world's largest smartphone maker, and Huawei, the No. 3 player in the market, China's Xiaomi and Oppo Electronics also showcased their latest smartphones, ready for 5G technology.

These manufacturers' exhibits at the trade show clearly indicate they are gearing up for the much-touted 5G revolution, which is scheduled to start in 2019.

At the March 1 shareholders meeting in Cupertino, California, Apple CEO Tim Cook failed to talk about the company's 5G strategy. Cook said the company is "planting seeds" and "rolling the dice" on future products, but refused to be specific.

Apple has so far been unable to announce 5G iPhones because of its patent battle with its chip supplier, Qualcomm, which has refused to supply 5G chips to Apple.

Qualcomm, the leading supplier of modem chips that allow smartphones to communicate over cellular networks, has for years sold key communications chips to Apple. But its relationship with the U.S. smartphone giant soured after Apple filed suit in January 2017, disputing Qualcomm's legal right to charge higher royalties for use of its chip technology under licensing contracts. Since then, lawsuits from both sides have been filed in multiple countries.

Most of the 5G smartphones that have been announced to be ready for a launch in 2019 use Qualcomm chips. Huawei, which has its own chip unit, is the only maker that is developing 5G smartphones without fully depending on Qualcomm chip technology.

Most industry analysts predict Apple will be unable to offer an iPhone with 5G capabilities in 2019 because Intel, an alternative supplier of 5G modem chips, has indicated its modems using the high-speed cellular technology will not appear in mobile devices until 2020.

It has been reported that Apple has embarked on developing communications chips on its own. But Cook has admitted that it will take the company "three to four years" to develop such chips.

The implications of any major delay in rolling out 5G devices for Apple would go far beyond the smartphone business.

Since 5G technology will allow electronic devices to respond to each other -- and to humans -- in the blink of an eye, it will help transform a wide swath of industries as key technological infrastructure for the "internet of things."

At the MWC, Huawei and Qualcomm described a future in which wirelessly connected robots will work together within a factory.

The new technology will enable robots to deal with more sophisticated tasks by using artificial intelligence via cloud computing and shorten the time needed to replace a production line to several days from the current several months because much less wiring work will be necessary, according to the companies. 

Companies involved in the development of autonomous driving, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are also looking for new business opportunities in 5G. 

Julia White, a member of Microsoft's cloud platform product marketing, has argued that a combination of 5G and cloud computing will hugely expand the scope of businesses.

At the MWC, various AR devices were on display. A host of new eye wearable devices are emerging as potential competitors for smartphones.

Apple is not well-positioned for competition in the 5G era because of its heavy dependence on hardware for profits.

With its strategic focus on the cloud business, Google is racing to develop a new version of its Android mobile operating system with a wide variety of IoT features. Like many other leading tech companies, Google has its sights set on the post-smartphone era.

Just as smartphones have eroded the personal computer market, 5G could threaten the smartphone market.

Two months since the "Apple Shock" stock market tumble following Apple's announcement of downward revisions in its earnings forecasts early this year, the company still seems to be clueless as to how to map out a convincing and coherent strategy for its future growth.

Apple's shares are now trading nearly 20% lower than their price levels in August 2018, when the company became the first U.S. company to be valued at more than $1 trillion.

At the company's March 1 shareholders meeting, a man who said he had been holding Apple shares for 34 years asked Cook whether the innovation-oriented company was really taking sufficient risks in product development.

Apple's strict secrecy was once seen as a symbol of its commitment to technological innovation. But the company appears to be losing its magic touch. 

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