Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon 855 processor in Maui this morning as part of its annual tech summit event. No details about the chip have yet been revealed (other than it's faster and better than the last chip, which duh), but we expect that will change tomorrow, given the day’s keynote will have the 855 as its focus. What we do know is that the 855 will probably power the bulk of next year’s high-end smartphones (because what else would?).
Full disclosure: Qualcomm flew me (and like, 300 other people) to Maui and gave me free food and booze and put me up in a fancy hotel with a private beach and like, twenty hot tubs. I promise our readers that I will maintain my trademark snarky impartiality as relates to anything said on a keynote stage or by a person who smiles at me in a way I find suspicious in either duration or intensity.
While Qualcomm will offer the 855 with and without 5G (as it confirmed was the plan with its 5G X50 modem earlier this year), there’s no doubt that for consumers, OEMs, and operators alike, next-gen network technologies are the main draw here. Without 5G, the 855 is just another process shrink (rumors peg this as Qualcomm’s first 7nm chipset), which is no small achievement (PUN!), but not much of a compelling marketing story. Qualcomm is heavily invested in 5G, and it needs excitement around the standard to build if it’s going to sell its pricey new modems to manufacturers.
The 855 is the world’s first 5G-ready chipset in any practical sense, as it will be the first to appear in 5G phones you can actually buy for use on 5G networks that actually exist. Huawei and Intel may dispute this characterization, but no products on the market use their 5G tech. The first 5G phones in the world will launch in America - because it’s currently the only country on earth with any meaningful 5G deployment - and those 5G phones will use Qualcomm processors with Qualcomm 5G modems. And that’s really the only 5G “first” that matters.
Qualcomm’s network partners are already pushing a strong 5G narrative here in the US, with AT&T and Verizon leading the way. Both carriers already have 5G home broadband live in test markets, and both plan to release 5G hotspot devices in the coming months. T-Mobile is currently in the process of deploying its own mobile 5G network, and there’s every reason to believe Verizon and AT&T are quietly doing so as well at this point. So, despite a fair amount of skepticism that 5G would ever arrive at all, it has, and it’s all but certainly going to be part of most major smartphones launched in the US within the next year or two.
OnePlus and Samsung have committed to launching 5G handsets in the US in 2019, Motorola has its god-awful 5G Mod for the Z3 (which we’ll be seeing demoed here in Maui), and you can bet that every phonemaker will be plastering the internet with “[COMPANY] LAUNCHES FIRST [MEANINGLESS METRIC] 5G SMARTPHONE” press releases for the next year. And they haven’t had a chance since 4G, so get ready for your next phone to have a big 5G logo slapped on it, because MORE GEES.
Outside America, the 5G story seems muddier (which is not surprising, as 4G was slow on global adoption as well), which probably makes the Snapdragon 855 a bit less exciting. But as I said, Qualcomm will offer the chip sans-5G parts, so it’s not as though you’ll be buying a phone with a bunch of wasted technology inside. One potential downside to all this is that we're almost certainly returning to the years of split phone SKUs - US phones with hyper-specific bands for each carrier that don’t play nicely with one another, and non-US phones that don’t work on our new networks, just the legacy ones. All in the name of progress, of course.
As a business, Qualcomm isn’t having a great year - its failed acquisition of NXP and the loss of a long-standing modem supply deal with Apple have put substantial dents in the company’s growth ambitions, and a saturated smartphone market in which consumers are keeping phones longer has made the yearly update cycle less relevant. Qualcomm, of course, would argue that its annual launches provide consumers the best product they can get year in and year out, but as 5G looms on the horizon - and news that Apple’s not getting in on it until at least 2020 - 2019 may be a tough sell from a silicon perspective.
We’ll be bringing you more from Maui as we get it, but don’t expect this to be the only announcement - Qualcomm may have a trick or two up its sleeve yet.