Smartphones will drive demand for 5G chipsets, but the companies that make these chips are working hard to develop adjacent markets as well. One of the biggest opportunities for 5G in devices beyond smartphones is the laptop.
However, 5G laptops have not yet hit the market in a meaningful way.
Qualcomm and Intel are both banking on the laptop market to eventually help drive sales of their 5G chips. Qualcomm's 8cx 5G platform combines its 8cx processor with a 5G modem, and the company's Snapdragon platform supports Microsoft Windows. Lenovo and Qualcomm announced a 5G-enabled PC, ambitiously dubbed Project Limitless, earlier this year at the Computex trade show. Six months later, with the holiday selling season in full swing, Lenovo still hasn't brought the laptop to market.
Similarly, Intel announced its plans to partner with Taiwan's MediaTek on a 5G laptop in November 2019. Earlier in the year, Intel sold its smartphone modem business to Apple, but by leveraging the Taiwanese company's smartphone modem expertise, Intel plans to enter the market for 5G PC modems.
"They want to have a competitive response to [Qualcomm]," explained analyst Jon Erensen, senior director for semiconductor research at consulting firm Gartner. "If demand for that feature picks up, Intel wants to be able to say 'Hey, we've got that capability too.' "
5G to build on LTE
Erensen estimates that fewer than 5% of the PCs on the market today offer cellular connectivity. WiFi is becoming pretty much ubiquitous, and unlimited cellular data plans make it inexpensive to tether a laptop to a smartphone, so built-in LTE may not make much difference to most laptop owners. And despite the relative success of its LTE-enabled iPad, Apple hasn't deemed the cellular PC market worthy of investment; its laptops do not offer LTE.
The Gartner team does not see 5G-based PCs taking off in the near future. It is projecting no revenue for semiconductor companies from 5G-enabled computers this year. Next year, it projects $70 million in revenue and for 2021, $167 million. Meanwhile Gartner expects semiconductor makers to sell almost a billion dollars worth of 5G chips to smartphone makers this year, and the analysts think the market will skyrocket next year, with chipmakers selling $10.4 billion worth of 5G chips to smartphone makers in 2020, and $17.3 billion in 2021.
According to the analysts at Gartner, the overall PC market -- including cellular and non cellular models -- is expected to decline 2%, from roughly 256 million units this year to about 250 million units next year. The one bright spot is premium ultramobiles. Ultramobiles are miniature PCs that may use touchscreens, QWERTY keyboards or both. They often include a stylus. Gartner expects demand for these high-end models to increase in the years ahead, from 67 million units this year to almost 72 million units next year, and more than 76 million units in 2021.
Erensen said PC makers are working to create ultramobiles that can "act more like smartphones, being always connected. When you open them up, they've been syncing content in the background. But there are challenges too... particularly the cost of doing that, not just for the hardware like the modem inside the device but more for the service that's attached to it, and how flexible the carriers will be with those service plans is something that I think will have a big impact on the ultimate penetration rate or adoption that we see for the technology."
More possible 5G drivers
Gaming is another driver of demand for portable computers, and that's good news for 5G chipmakers, because cloud-based gaming is emerging as an important 5G use case. 5G could offer gamers the ability to play with remote opponents in real-time and to experience virtual reality in their games.
Another trend that could boost the demand for laptops that connect to cellular networks is mobile cloud. As companies start to store more mission-critical documents in the cloud, they will want their employees to access these documents over highly secure networks, and public WiFi may not cut it. So corporate PC buyers may start to look for cellular connectivity in laptops. But LTE could satisfy their needs; it is not yet clear that 5G will be a big value-add for corporate IT departments when they procure laptop computers.
"I'm not sure it's critical right now," said Erensen. "When 5G gets more interesting is when you build out the 5G core network... When you go to the standalone [5G] networks, that's when some of the really unique capabilities of 5G come into play, things like ultra-low latency, like the higher reliability. As you do that, then you can start to think about the applications that would benefit from that."
— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse.