I don’t know if you have ever been to a Spin Class but, if you have, the amount of adrenaline generated by a good drill sergeant instructor, upbeat music, and hard work leaves you exhausted, accomplished, and looking for more. This is exactly how I feel about this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC). There was a lot of excitement (some of it self-generated) and most of it for things that will take years to mature. But nevertheless, there was excitement, especially if you did not limit your focus to what smartphone was being launched by what brand.
I always say MWC feels more like a “business” show than CES or even IFA. Some of the feelings, I am sure, come from the many suits you see at the show. This year, I’m not sure if it was because of a change in business attire or a change in the kind of people who were attending, but I certainly saw an audience a little bit more casual and a little younger. Sadly, however, despite the GSMA’s effort with Women4Tech, I cannot say I saw an audience significantly more female, once you discount of all the women working in the booths.
This was the biggest MWC yet with 108,000 people attending from 208 different countries and territories. The satellite show 4YFN (four years from now), an event that listed over 700 investors and startups, seemed to have attracted more interest than in the past. Such interest might be signaling a deeper realization that the next big thing might be coming from a startup vs. one of the large brand names that were at the MWC main location.
There were many announcements throughout the show but there were three larger themes I would like to reflect on — smartphones, 5G, AI, and VR.
Smartphones: Old is New
The biggest news at MWC17 was the rebirth of two big names in the history of mobile phones: Nokia and Blackberry. While different in the details, these two brands are coming back to the smartphone market thanks to a brand licensing deal that allows HMD Global and TCL respectively to use their household names going forward. HMD, in particular, generated a lot of publicity with the Nokia 3310. Many are over-analyzing this phone and wondering why HMD would bring to market a 2G phone without Wi-Fi. They are missing the point. This was a great marketing campaign. HMD is certainly not counting on becoming a large smartphone player through the Nokia 3310. They launched three Android devices, all under 200 Euros and are good quality phones with the design you would expect from a phone with the Nokia name. Yet, you could not pick them out of a police lineup. So, imagine how quickly those products would have been dismissed had HMD not played on the emotions for the Finnish brand that had been “connecting people” for decades. The Nokia 3310 achieved its purpose: reigniting the fire in every Nokia lover out there. Any sales the Nokia 3310 will achieve from now on will be a bonus.
The fact all the phones looked alike is a problem not new to the industry but, at MWC, it was quite evident as you walked through the booths and saw the same screen sizes, same colors and, in some occasions, the same software UI for features like the camera. Oppo and its 5x zoom phone is a good case in point, with its similarities to the iPhone 7. Even features start to be the same. Huawei launched Highlights in collaboration with GoPro that looks very much like Apple’s Memories on the iPhone. It’s so hard to stand out, some vendors are going back to gimmicks like the Alcatel LED lights on the back of the A5 which flash differently depending on the activity of the phone: calls, messages or the beat of the music.
Overall though, the main two trends for phones were photography and thinner bezels. Every vendor was focusing on making us better photographers by enhancing the quality of the camera across the board, from sensors to lenses to software. The Sony Xperia XZ Premium was the best specimen of this trend with its 19-megapixel camera capable of creating a slow-motion video at 960 frame per second. On the bezel front, LG certainly tried to capture its fair share of attention ahead of Samsung and Apple’s launches (both rumored to bring thin-bezel-phones) to the market. The LG G6 has a 5.7-inch display that does not feel much bigger than a 5.5-inch display because the screen uses up most of the phone real estate. Getting more screen without making the overall phones larger is key if we want to keep these devices in our pockets. Standardizing on overall size will also be important for VR headsets as, once you invest in one, you do not want to change it just because your phone no longer fits.
Gigabit LTE phones also made an appearance at the show where 5G and the path to it was very much a focus.
5G at the Top of the Hype vs. the Reality of Gigabit LTE
The drums were beating hard at the show for 5G with everybody making a case but with very little clarity on timelines, business use and models, as Bob O’Donnell explained in his article.
I think everyone will need little convincing that, between more people with smartphones, mobile computing, and IoT, our networks will need more bandwidth, more speed, less latency, and more efficiency. How long it will take to tangibly feel that is less clear. I would also argue that, for the “connected everything” to happen, we need to be able to experience what it will be like. Yet, there are too many uncertainties from a business model perspective for carriers to just roll 5G out. “Build it and they will come” hurt many carriers with 3G and many are still licking their wounds and not prepared to have the same happen with 5G.
I think this is where Gigabit LTE comes in. Qualcomm and Intel both showcased their new chipsets in Barcelona. Ericsson announced it will be bringing Gigabit LTE to Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks for 2017 and ZTE showcased the first Gigabit Phone. Mind you, it’s not one you can buy in a store any time soon.
How carriers will decide to market Gigabit LTE will be interesting. In the US, some carriers were calling it “HSPA+ 4G”, even if it wasn’t. I would not be surprised if foggy marketing will be the preferred choice in this case as well. What will matter to consumers will be broad availability in phones and plans that allow you to take advantage of the new speed without going bankrupt. When it comes to other connected things, consumers will care more about the return on investment than the technology that enables the connectivity itself. So, as our cars get connected, for instance, consumers will have to understand why paying extra per month to activate that connection is worth it.
AI and VR: Less Hype, More Purpose
Artificial intelligence was present at the show but not as prominent as it was at CES. I certainly felt like there was less “AI-washing” as I call it. Smartphone vendors talked about AI although, sometimes, actually meaning Machine Learning and gave concrete examples of what this meant. The Huawei P10, for instance, has a feature called Ultra Response that uses an algorithm to predict where your fingers are going to move next based on the previous task you performed. The Huawei P10 also has Ultra Memory which cycles memory faster and allows for apps to launch 30% more quickly.
IBM Watson had a very interesting demo in their booth that used their tone and personality analyzer to light up the cognitive dress that was on display. I logged into my Twitter account through a tablet next to the dress and, a minute or so later, I could see on the screen my Twitter feed was mostly passionate, excited, quite a bit curious, and a little joyful. Alas, it showed I needed to be more encouraging. As I was reading, the cognitive dress changed from white to the color of passion: red. While the demo was cute, it is the possibility of analyzing tone and personality that really intrigued me and made me think of the potential for improving customer service with bots and digital assistants. Think about being able to capture personality and adapt to it to make for a more positive exchange. Or pick up on the tone and adapt to avoid confrontation. Wouldn’t our exchanges with any customer service bot be much more pleasant?
Amazon’s Alexa was less present than she was at CES but this is understandable, considering how much more fragmented the market is in Europe from a language and content perspective. Moto announced support for Alexa, adding to Huawei’s announcement at CES, while Google Assistant opened up to brands beyond the Pixel.
Virtual reality was present at the show but the focus this year seemed much more on content than on hardware. From a hardware viewpoint, there was nothing new other than some tweaks to controllers and headmounts. There were some announcements of 360 degree cameras, underlying how personal content will play an important role in VR. The lines at the Samsung booth to try VR were considerably shorter than last year. I take that as a sign of maturity more than a sign of disinterest. Samsung also had more competition this year as others came prepared to show off VR experiences like Korea Telecom and their VR party with the band Twice. While many of the demos were focused on entertainment, at the end of the day, this is what VR will be for most consumers. Some demos focused more on education and B2B. At the HTC Vive booth, you could try YOU VR by Sharecare which lets you look at all the organs in a human body and “experience” the effects of a disease. Imagine how different a doctor/patient conversation would be using this or even for a med student as a learning tool. Considering the success of these demos at the different shows I attend as well as the great success of the VR cafes in China, I wish we would see more pop up experiences in the US. In store experiences help but I think having cafes where people pay to play but do not have to go through the sales pitch would drive better engagement, in my view.
Until next year Mobile World Congress!