Tech in 2019: 5G, AI, 8K – the year ahead looks like an alphabet soup of progress

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Faster networks, bendable phones, more choices for cord-cutters – even a breakdown in our very own critical thinking, because we’re leaning too heavily on artificial intelligence?

Consumers will have a lot of new tech to digest in the new year ahead, in what is shaping up to be a year of transition. Here’s what to look forward to in consumer tech in 2019.

We’ve been hearing about the wicked fast next-generation of wireless for a few years now, and tests and early deployments of a relatively very small scale have long begun in earnest.

But 2019 is when the commercial rollout of 5G networks starts to become more real in a lot more places, in the U.S. and overseas.

In this country, the first available 5G-capable smartphones are expected to arrive by the spring, and you’ll also see 5G hotspots and modems by then, if not sooner. At a recent Qualcomm tech summit in Maui, Samsung showed off 5G smartphone prototypes, while  AT&T and Verizon set up mini-5G test networks. Those two carriers, plus (pending government approval) a newly-merged T-Mobile and Sprint, all have ambitious designs for 5G.

A quick explainer: 5G combines fast speeds with low “latency” or network responsiveness, which will be critical to the technology’s long-time impact on everything from self-driving cars to remote surgery.

You’ll be well into the next decade before 5G impacts such fields in a massive way. In 2019, the 5G push will be centered around fixed wireless deployments, essentially a broadband substitute for the home, and yes, the early stages of the fast phones you’ll start carrying around in your pocket.

Around the world, Deloitte expects 25 operators to have launched 5G service in at least part of their territory (usually cities) in 2019, with about 1 million 5G-capable handsets to have shipped by year-end. Put that in perspective: since Deloitte projects about 1.5 billion smartphones to be shipped overall in 2019, the 5G share is tiny. But hey, it’s a start.

Speaking of long-promised tech that hasn’t, um, come into the fold just yet, 2019 also appears to be the year where we finally see commercial phones with flexible displays, a nascent market of devices from Samsung, LG, Huawei, Motorola and possibly others.

This past October, a Fremont, California, startup known as Royole launched the FlexPai in China, billed as the “world’s first commercial foldable smartphone with a flexible display.” The device costs more than $1,300 and is being pitched initially to developers.

Though not exactly a product yet, Samsung teased its own flexible phone design at a recent developer conference, during which Google announced that Android would support foldable form factors.

In 2019 when such form factors begin to take shape, some important questions will need to be answered. Two of the biggest: What is the ultimate consumer benefit, and just how much will these new-fangled devices cost?

Samsung’s move “highlights the hard reality that this design may be a solution looking for a problem,” notes Wayne Lam, principal analyst for mobile devices and networks at IHS Markit. Color me a skeptic as well, until proven otherwise.

Apple will launch a streaming on-demand TV rival to Netflix and Amazon Prime. That’s what The Information website wrote this past October, and I have little reason to doubt that the report, which was pinned on unnamed sources, is accurate.

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