Reflecting on #MWC19 Barcelona

on March 4, 2019
Reading Time: 4 minutes

I have been attending MWC since when it was called 3GSM, and over the years I have seen it evolve and transform to fit with the market and the reality that mobile had gone from being an after-thought to the trend that influences every aspect of our life.

Many announcements throughout the week already received a lot of coverage, so I wanted to share my thoughts on three aspects of MWC19 Barcelona that struck me.

The Past is Hindering the Future

After a couple of years when the attention shifted away from mobile phones, hardware was back on MWC main stage, thanks to both 5G and Foldables. The #5GisHere hashtag was everywhere at the show, and the launch of several 5G ready phones made it feel real.

Foldables were also everywhere either as finished products like the Huawei Mate X and Samsung Galaxy Fold or as concepts like those shown by TCL.  CES sensation Royole was also in Barcelona to showcase its FlexPai. All in all, it felt good to see brands experimenting with different form factors after so many years of rectangular slabs.

As many debated whether or not these devices are a reality for 2019, I could not help but think that both 5G and Foldables, and the impact they could have, were hindered by how the past taught us to think of a phone. Let me explain.

With 5G, companies have been focusing on highlighting speed and lack of latency, using smartphones as the poster child of the technology. There is no question that 5G will improve our smartphone experience, but the reality is that 5G will enable a much broader set of use cases that will impact communication between devices not just between humans. This is the real promise of 5G for me, one that lands well beyond phones and that must be recognized to take full advantage of 5G. Of course, I am aware that those scenarios like connected cities, autonomous cars and so on are on a longer path and that the idea of a faster phone is so much easier to market. My concern is that unless we start to think about these possibilities and how adding connectivity to other devices impacts our phone usage or how the blurring of what is fixed and mobile connectivity impacts our expectations of when and how we want to be connected, carriers and service providers will run the risk to hinder uptake by pricing their service based on old parameters.

Foldables are not that different from 5G. With the two commercial products we have seen from Samsung and Huawei, the manufacturers took a similar approach that focuses on using a foldable display to give us more screen. While this is a safe bet on what consumers might want, I think there is more that vendors should consider. As computing power is shared across devices such as wearables, smart speakers, PCs, in-car infotainment systems… will we need our phones to get bigger or would we need our phones to get even smarter in how they present information to us? I think considering the possibility that phones need to evolve as a form factor that has little to do with a rectangle or a square might help brands be ready for XR glasses by either prepare consumers for them or offer a smart alternative.

I hope that the need to show early success in both categories will not prevent companies from thinking about long term opportunities for both groups.

Chinese Brands Owned the Show

Coming from the US, where the presence of Chinese smartphone brands is minimal; it was mesmerizing to see just how much these brands dominated the show and the conversation.

With a little help from Samsung, that this year did not hold its usual Unpacked event on Sunday night, you felt the show was all about the Chinese brands and Huawei in particular. We have been used over the years to see Huawei heavily advertised throughout Barcelona, but with the Mate X announcement and the hands-on with the device tactically spread-out throughout the show, Huawei was certainly top of mind all week. Huawei also happened to win two GSMA Glomo awards, one for best 2018 smartphone with the Mate 20 Pro and one for the best-connected device at the show with the Mate X.

Other brands such as Xiaomi and Oppo had launch events at the show and got a lot of attention for their 5G and camera phones. It is precisely when looking at the list of 5G phones announced at the show that you realize most of them will not be coming to the US market because a Chinese company sells them.

All the security issues that dominate the conversation in the US every time Huawei is mentioned were absent at the show. As we were celebrating 5G, the gloomy prospect of carriers having to swap out Huawei network gear incurring on huge expense and launch delays was a hot topic for the press. It was clear, however, that it was all about political powerplay rather than security concerns.

Apple: Out of Sight Out of Mind

We are accustomed not to see Apple at MWC or CES or any other big tradeshow. But we usually end up talking about Apple nevertheless. Either because their ecosystem drives the conversation, or because they break some news during the show, Apple always seems to find a way into the news cycle. Last year at MWC Apple won the GSMA Glomo Awards for the Best smartphone with the iPhone X and well as Disruptive Device Innovation with the TrueDepth Camera.

This year, however, it was different. Maybe because it seems a given that Apple will not have a 5G device in 2019 and I would guess not even a Foldable, they were left out of the conversation almost entirely. The iPhone X did appear in some device comparison for newly launched devices acknowledging that it remains the benchmark for many brands out there.

I also felt though that the reason for the lack of this looming Apple shadow on MWC also reflected the reality of the European smartphone market that sees way more variety in vendors that the US market does. The iOS ecosystem is also not as strong in Europe as it is in the US as many services such as News, Apple Pay, Maps Transit are not available across markets.

I do wonder if the fact that Apple will not have a 5G device in 2019 will lead US carriers to be more open about working with other vendors to guarantee a variety of options to their subscribers. HMD, Sony and OnePlus are all expected to bring their high-end devices to the US although no specific carrier announcement has been made thus far and we know at least two of those vendors have a 5G device on the way.

Often what happens outside the US does not get the same level of importance of what happens in the US, but keeping an eye on what takes place around the world is critical to understand the challenges that some vendors are or will face. Market share does not tell the whole story after all.