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Apple's iPhone 12 bets may take time to pay off

With the iPhone 12, unveiled Tuesday, Apple has made some big technology bets that should boost demand for 5G networks as well as help spur developers to create more advanced augmented reality applications. However, phone buyers will probably have to wait for a payoff.

Why it matters: Many tech advances start out as chicken-and-egg problems, with developers waiting for a market to emerge while consumers don't yet see the value in spending more. Apple has the rare ability to push past that block. Because of its size and comparatively focused product line, its support of new technologies like 5G and lidar can vault them into the mainstream.

Driving the news: Apple introduced four models of the iPhone 12, with starting prices ranging from $699 to $1,099, depending on model. (Technically those prices are only for the AT&T and Verizon models.)

  • All four models include support for a wide range of 5G networks, including Verizon's speedy but sparsely available millimeter-wave network.

The two Pro models add not only a zoom lens, but also a lidar sensor for depth sensing and advanced augmented reality capabilities.

  • Apple has already included such a sensor in the iPad Pro, but putting it in the iPhone means there will eventually be millions of lidar-equipped devices.
  • That could be a large enough market to start attracting app developers to take advantage of the technology — by offering more complex image layers or more precise map locations for AR apps, which place digital information over real-world images.

The big picture: Apple is investing in areas that it sees as key to the long-term future, but consumers who buy the latest iPhones are paying for those advances now.

  • The 5G network support and additional sensor add to Apple's costs, and you can be sure that they are being passed along one way or another. For example, while the new iPhones are roughly similar in price to the prior year's models, Apple is no longer including chargers or wired headphones.

Yes, but: Some of the other features that Apple has added to the new phones — including the faster A14 Bionic processor, larger image sensor and improved OLED display on the base model — will benefit people out of the gate.

What they're saying:

  • Loup Ventures analyst Gene Munster: "[N]ow it's up to the carriers to make true 5G widely available," he said, making a similar point regarding lidar. "We've been waiting three years for this hardware to be added, and now the ball is in developers' hands to make compelling AR applications."
  • New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin: "We continue to think the iPhone 12 will drive a big wave of upgrades and switching."

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