MWC 2014: The final mobile phone show?

It doesn’t help that major news agencies like the BBC keep referring to Mobile World Congress as “the mobile phone show”, but new handset announcements have dominated coverage for the past 15 years. So the general public could be forgiven for thinking that the annual Barcelona industry gathering is all about smartphones.

There have been some changes though. I recall back in the late 90s, when the show had moved to Cannes, one major vendor held a press conference to announce its latest pre-smartphone (let’s face it, all smartphones before the iPhone, and there were many, now have to be re-categorised). All 10 of the journalists present thought it rather impressive, although it wouldn’t be released for another year… In fact, the vendor’s engineering team were also impressed – impressed by the fact that this new phone had been created by the design and marketing teams without any input from them, leaving them with 12 months to come up with brand new technology and manufacturing processes to actually make this original ‘vapourware’ a reality!

Fast forward to 2014, and Samsung’s Unwrapped event to launch its Galaxy S5 smartphone was staged in front of thousands of journalists and bloggers. What’s more, they had working devices and promise a commercial launch in just two months time.

You only have to Google MWC to discover who and what grabbed the most headlines. Let me save you some time by revealing the top 4: Samsung, Nokia, Facebook and WhatsApp. Two major handset vendors and two OTT Internet services. The latter two can be explained by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote address at the show, where he essentially called for access to his company’s service to be regarded as a human right, equivalent to clean water and electricity, and that mobile operators should provide it for free, and WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum’s announcement that he wants to offer free voice as well as text messaging. Of course, the purchase of WhatsApp by Facebok also helped…

That leaves us with Samsung and Nokia. Samsung, obviously, because of the Galaxy S5, as well as its Tizen-powered watches. Nokia because of its rather strange decision to launch Android-powered devices ahead of its official purchase by Microsoft. We couldn’t even get on to the Nokia stand for the press conference, as it was already full (although the whoops, cheers and clapping from the distinctively US-looking denim-clad stand personnel whenever ex-CEO Stephen Elop announced anything new was a little too much to stomach. One suspects they were being watched by a human resources robot, tasked with identifying all non-believers).

Start to look further down the MWC news coverage list and you come across more handset and tablet launches. Sony got a lot of attention, although the coverage wasn’t as positive as the firm might have wished for. As did HTC, LG, Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo and Acer.

Yet none of these devices, including the S5 and Nokia X, is particularly innovative. They are all very similar to other handsets out there. Remember the surprise and amazement when Apple showed off that first black slab and its little square icons? Every phone since has been modelled on that. Is it any wonder that we are now hearing that the smartphone market has reached maturity and that innovation is slowing?

That’s very evident, but I would amend the statement to say that this “current” smartphone phase is maturing. I would call this the second phase of smartphones – the first phase included the likes of the iconic Nokia Communicator, the second phase started with the iPhone. We just need to be patient and wait for the third phase – because there will be one.

In other news… actually, there was lots of other news at MWC. It wasn’t all about handsets. Yes, handsets grabbed most of the headlines, but MWC was about as diverse and broad as I have ever seen it; and that’s good for the industry. I heard plenty of talk about how the show should be split into two – one for devices, one for networks – but I disagree, the two are too closely connected. NFV was everywhere, which was good, as it is going to disrupt the market like nothing before it.

There were more connected cars at MWC than ever before, and chances are next year’s event will more closely resemble the Motor Show. Wearables continues to struggle, mainly due to the fact that nobody wants to be dressed by the telecoms industry thank you very much, but if the fashion houses, luxury labels and brands can follow the example of Ford and Volvo and attend MWC with their own products, then maybe this sector will achieve its promise.

The focus on healthcare appeared to have been pushed out of the main venue and into a sideshow at the old Montjuic Fira halls (along with media and broadcast) – a very bad idea. The show needs to located at one venue, it cannot be spread out across a couple of miles. Because this surely is the future of MWC, and indeed the whole industry – a connected society. Connected devices, connected services, connected networks.

Please, it’s not “the mobile phone show”. It’s more than that. But whether the mainstream media will tire of saturation coverage of “yet another smartphone that looks and works almost exactly like the last one” remains to be seen. Until we see the next phase of the smartphone market, the real innovation is happening in the network.

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