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Why super-fast 5G iPhones might not power a 'supercycle' for Apple

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Apple (AAPL) can seemingly do no wrong. The company's stock is up 103% in the last 12 months, far outpacing the S&P 500's 26% rise, and iPhone 11 units are moving at a brisk pace alongside strong demand from China.

Then there's the expected release of the 5G iPhone later this year. That has investors hoping for a massive uptick in device upgrades, which would be a major boost to Apple's bottom line. And as one of a small group of $1 trillion companies that includes Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG, GOOGL) , Apple will need some impressive sales to keep investors happy.

But not everyone shares the enthusiasm of a potential 5G-powered sales supercycle. And at least one analyst says that the prospects for massive demand for 5G iPhones could be overblown.

Apple's iPhone 11 on display during an event to announce new products Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Cupertino, Calif. (Image: AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Huge hype for a super-fast iPhones

"We believe form factors, not technology, drives supercycles," Nomura analyst Jeffrey Kvaal wrote in a note issued Friday. "We argue that prior uptick in upgrades was primarily due to form factor changes rather than the technology shift from 3G to 4G."

In other words, Kvaal doesn't believe the shift to 5G-capable iPhones will power a huge jump in Apple's sales.

The 5G iPhone supercycle, however, has been expected for some time. The thinking goes that when consumers are exposed to the possibilities offered by 5G technology — incredibly fast upload and download speeds, low latency, huge bandwidth — they'll clamor for an iPhone that can connect to such networks.

To do that, users would have to purchase a 5G-capable iPhone, which would send sales through the roof, especially among upgraders.

Shoppers line up to purchase the newly-launched Apple iPhone 11 at Apple's Fifth Avenue Store in New York City on September 20, 2019. (Image: RW/MediaPunch /IPX)

"With roughly 350 million of these iPhones in the 'window of an upgrade opportunity' we believe Cupertino has a unique opportunity to capture this supercycle opportunity with a major 5G cycle on the horizon which will include a host of new smartphone versions/models for iPhone 12," Wedbush analyst Dan Ives wrote in a recent analyst note.

Ives isn't alone in his prediction, either. UBS analyst Timothy Arcuri wrote in a recent note that consumers are increasingly looking to 5G as a reason to upgrade.

As he notes, 22% of consumers responding to UBS's latest smartphone survey, which measures sentiment from 9,000 consumers across five countries, point to 5G as a reason for upgrading their devices. And while that still trails performance, it's a sign that awareness of 5G among potential buyers is high.

Why 5G might not be the answer

As with any new kind of consumer technology, the first crop of 5G-capable iPhones is expected to cost more to produce than current 4G LTE models. According to Kvaal, that could lead to a $40 to $80 increase in the 5G iPhone's bill of materials. 

The question then is: who bears the burden of that cost increase? Kvaal writes that consumers have shown hesitance in spending toward the high-end of iPhone prices, and that Apple is unlikely to swallow the cost. That would leave suppliers to carry the cost, but there could be an unwillingness to do so.

Then there's the use case for consumer-level 5G. As Kvaal points out, the initial crop of 5G-capable iPhones will come at a time when 5G will offer little more than improved download speeds for things like music and movies, something we can already do at an incredible pace.

It's going to be some time, the analyst notes, before we see any apps or services that truly take advantage of the outrageous speed increases we'll see from 5G. 

"The incremental utility to the consumer seems limited as well," Kvaal notes. "Consumers can already consume as much video as they would like and new 5G applications seem some distance off."

Then there's the issue of whether 5G networks will be ubiquitous enough to benefit 5G iPhone owners. If the first crop of buyers can't reliably get on 5G networks, and default to 4G, there may be a backlash against Apple for offering the devices. Though, the fault would actually lie at the feet of the wireless carriers.

(Verizon is the parent company of Yahoo Finance.)

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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at danielphowley@protonmail.com or dhowley@yahoofinance.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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