It feels like the 5G dream died this week. Is 5G really the solution we've all been waiting for? A week ago I would have said yes, definitely. Ask me today and it's a question that's no longer so easy to answer.
This week Qualcomm held its annual '5G day' where it provides the media with a taste of all the latest 5G developments. Each year, the event is packed full of presentations including demonstrations. These demos are limited in the sense they are usually a highly-controlled situation that shows the effects of one action at a time. However, they are there to provide a snapshot of what the future will look like.
This year was no different with Qualcomm eager to showcase how far 5G had come. The only difference was it did not feel quite as exciting as before. Now, the suggestion the media has become saturated to 5G news is likely to be true, but even Qualcomm did not appear to be as excited about 5G as before. That proved to be the most interesting 5G takeaway you'll find this week.
For the record, it wasn't just me who felt like this at the event. I spoke to many journalists and media representatives who appeared to be genuinely confused about what to report. That's an important, and telling, point to note. A good portion of the media felt there had been little to no change in the past twelve months. That there was nothing new in the world of 5G. At least, nothing new or exciting enough to whet a journalist's appetite.
And for reference, journalists don't usually need much to have their appetite for a story whetted.
Delays killing the 5G dream
We've all heard about 5G for years now. A big part of Qualcomm's main presentation was how the 5G story actually started back in the 90s. Qualcomm even launched a new webpage to highlight this.
From Qualcomm's perspective, 5G is here, and this look back was an attempt to make sure everyone knew Qualcomm's contribution during this long road to 5G. But none of this proved exciting. If anything, the 'look back at 5G's life' felt more like an obituary than a celebration of birth.
The other issue was 5G is not here. Yes, if you walk down one street, in one city, then for a few seconds you might encounter 5G. But, it will be a fleeting encounter. One that's gone when you turn the corner.
OK, that's not strictly true as Qualcomm did showcase the non-line of sight improvements that have been made. Phones will come with antennas on all (most) sides and this multi-antenna approach not only allows the device to receive the signal when the user covers certain sides, but also helps when signals are bounced and reflected towards the device. Qualcomm demonstrated this by showing a phone was still able to receive a third of the speed when around a corner. Again, this was interesting, but not something that particularly felt new. These improvements are to be expected.
And expected was the name of the game at the event. Everything was just so expected. At one point, in a bid to inject some life, Qualcomm made the terrible decision to reference "6G."
If you needed any more confirmation that 5G excitement was fading, that was it. You also shouldn't read too much into the 6G mention. It was designed to get a crowd reaction, and it did.
5G the new Google Glass?
When Google Glass was announced, it felt different. More than just glasses, Glass was a smart product with the potential to change the world. It was futuristic. The suggestion was we would all wear Glass and constantly receiving data on each other, and the world around us. It was exciting.
Fast forward and from the consumer perspective, Glass is dead. Glass was repackaged and resold as a business solution. A factory tool to manage production and inventory.
At Qualcomm's event, it felt like 5G was also in the process of an enterprise tool rebranded.
If anything, this appeared to be what Qualcomm was most excited about as it tried to sell the dream of 'private 5G networks' and the idea of factories reducing error rates and missed deadlines. Or businesses protecting their IP through a private network where everything is offloaded to the cloud. Even physical things like laptops no longer held any personal or private data. They were merely connection points.
To some, that might be exciting, but this is 5G. This is the change the internet has been waiting for.
Even when it came to the otherworldly wold of self-driving cars, the shine had dulled. Instead of talking how the world will be different, Qualcomm got bogged down in the smaller gains. Almost in admittance of how far away the likelihood of all cars being self-driving cars was. If it was just the UPS, Amazon and Uber fleets, Qualcomm's message appeared to be – that's still good, right?
While that might be better than nothing, and even if there's gains to be had with only one or ten percent of self-driving cars on the road, that's not the 5G dream. 5G was supposed to be the era of everything's connected to everything. Viva la data revolución.
The reality of 5G far less sexy
To be clear, 5G is nearer than it was before and Qualcomm did make the point that 'every high-end phone that launches next year will be a 5G phone.' That may be true, and by the end of next year, many more parts of the U.S. and the globe will be 'lit up' with 5G. But after this week, the reality feels less like a giant leap for mankind and more like the incremental change "4" to "5" implies.
Yes, you'll have faster speeds, lower latency and greater capacity. And yes, that means downloading a song in an instant, maybe even a Netflix show or movie in seconds. But if that's the extent of what 5G offers most people, then it's underwhelming.
Yes, you may be able to stream a game buffer-free or even immerse yourself further in VR and AR, but these are all expected qualities. Maybe that's the real truth. Maybe Qualcomm et al have spent so long selling us a 5G dream that all the good bits are now just expected and all we have left to focus on is the automation of factories and the fourteen-percent gain in journey time it takes to get to work in a self-driving car.
It's time for a 5G dream apology
I, along with many others in the industry have also spent the last couple of years selling a 5G dream. That dream may still happen and may still prove to be all we had hoped for. However, based on the last week, that's no longer a given.
Yes, your smartphone and connected life will improve with 5G, but given time those improvements will become the norm. Downloading a Netflix movie in seconds will be great, but not life-changing. If there are life-changing experiences on the 5G horizon, none of them were explained this week.
That's the other 5G issue. Since 5G became a thing, we've heard about the next generation of experiences. If 3G was voice and 4G was apps, then 5G will be something else. That's the narrative the media was fed for the last few years although no one can really tell you what the something else is.
The media doesn't really know and by the looks of it, neither does those bringing 5G to reality. If you ask them, they will say that's up to the market. They are simply there to open the 5G door and from there it is up to innovation to unpack itself. Again, that might be true. After all, we would not have Netflix or Uber, and especially on our phones, if it wasn't for 4G. So maybe 5G will follow the same path and its existence will still kickstart a revolution. Maybe the market will suddenly explode with new possibilities and experiences. But the maybe is the key word here. Before, it would have been a definitely. Now it's just a maybe.
In the meantime, expect to see a lot of media outlets struggling and stretching to talk up what was announced, or not announced, during this year's '5G day.'