I have just returned from a very interesting and jammed-packed week at Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona. A record 93,000 plus people are estimated to have attended this year’s premier technology festival. Much has changed in the industry over the last year since I reported my observations of MWC 2014. However, what is most remarkable is how the boundaries of mobility continue to expand and morph – everything now seems to be mobile? As such, the show offers a fascinating glimpse into the future of technology and the major social and business shifts that we can expect in the next few years.
The following are my personal observations and extrapolations from the show, based on my conversations with operators, customer meetings, analysts, and colleagues, as well as from simply walking the show floor.
- 5G – The Next New Technology —What is a technology show without a shiny new technology? Despite the fact that less than 5 per cent of global subscribers have adopted the previous new technology (4G), and over half of mobile users are still back on the second generation (2G) technology, we are now entering the fifth generation of mobile technology – 5G. The remarkable thing though is that no one really knows what 5G is. There are no technical standards or industry agreements on the definition of 5G. However, every major vendor is now “5G ready” and promoting their 5G solutions. And mobile operators like KT and SKT in South Korea are aggressively promoting their pending 5G deployments.
- IoT – The Year’s Hottest Three Letter Acronym — These 3 letters – standing for the “Internet of Things” – were everywhere. They were on the signs of practically every booth and on the tip of everyone’s tongue. No doubt, the ability to connect sensors, devices and “things” to the Internet is the next wave of mobile growth and presents tremendous opportunities for technology vendors to sell new products and services. A number of key partnerships were announced and some very interesting and compelling industrial IoT case studies were promoted. The mobile operators shouted out their relevance in IoT by displaying their platforms, capabilities and lighthouse customer engagements.
- Smart Phone Wars – Samsung won the unofficial market launch of the show with its slickly executed unveiling of the new S6. This stunning new device is Samsung’s attempt to get back into the game – trying to recover some of the ground lost to the new iPhone 6 and to firmly establish itself as the Android leader. While many other manufacturers launched new smartphones, Samsung was by far the most talked about brand at MWC. In the continuing saga of the smart phone wars, it looks like we might be back to a 2 player game again for a while?
- Building the New Mobile — For those of you who follow me, you will know that I have long been a proponent of a “Wi-Fi Max-Mobile Min” strategy to create a new mobile service. With the near ubiquity of Wi-Fi enabled devices, Wi-Fi access in homes and offices and the growth of public Wi-Fi, there is an opportunity to create a new type of mobile service running largely over Wi-Fi. While there have been a number of smaller, niche players (e.g., Republic Wireless, Scratch), it wasn’t until Google announced that they were getting into the game that it started to get serious. Sundar Pichai of Google gave an unsettling (at least for the traditional MNOs) keynote describing how Google’s MVNO would be primarily based on Wi-Fi, and when that was absent it would select the best, and cheapest, cellular coverage from a number of the big mobile providers.
- The Connected Car Show — At times you could be forgiven for thinking that you had wandered into the auto show in Geneva or Detroit instead of MWC. There were cars everywhere. The industry sees these as “smart phones on wheels.’ Operators, such as AT&T were crowing about their big deal to connect all new Audis. Auto manufactures, such as Ford, were demonstrating the cool things that you could do with their connected cars. And for some reason, even exhibitors like Visa had cars at their booths. These were not just any cars – they were Porches, Audis, Mercedes, Maserati’s and every other high-end auto you can imagine. Fancy cars are now the standard “eye candy” at big technology shows.
- Virtual Reality — Samsung demonstrated a very cool technology for adapting one of their Galaxy Note 4’s or the new S6 into a virtual reality device. Not only does VR make games incredibly cool, but it has lots of applications to industry, enhancing solutions and business processes. HTC is working on a similar VR adaptor for its mobile devices. Several exhibitors were also using virtual reality devices to enhance the impact of their messaging. As virtual reality becomes integrated with cost-effective, and near ubiquitous smart phones, we can expect it to have a big impact on re-shaping many businesses – far beyond the gaming world.
- Virtualization Reality — Virtualization and the cloud have finally hit the core mobile network elements. Not only will this make it less expensive for operators to build networks, but will provide them with much greater flexibility and responsiveness and allow the network to extend well beyond the boundaries of the traditional mobile network. This is the year that the promise finally started to become a reality. Mobile operators, such as Telefonica, China Mobile and NTT DoCoMo, announced fully operational NFV (Network Functions Virtualization) deployments. AT&T reiterated its desire to move 75 percent of its network to a cloud architecture by 2020.
- Making Wearables Wearable — There were 53 wearable devices on display at the show – 10 of which had their own SIMs to connect directly to the mobile network. The majority of these were smart watches and fitness trackers. The challenge, however, seems to be getting people besides device geeks to wear these. Huawei made a very interesting debut in this category with a high-end watch with a round-faced classic design. It looked like something that even James Bond might wear. And, although Apple was nowhere to be seen, rumors (and subsequent launch) of its new Apple Watch presented additional hope that wearables might in fact become wearable.
- Mobile Monetization – An Industry on the Edge — At one time, service providers were the kings of the show. They are now just one of the participants in the massive and rapidly changing mobile industry. The decline in voice traffic, loss of messaging and competition to their data business from over the top providers and alternative access networks such as Wi-Fi, means that they desperately need to find new ways to make money. Most of the world’s major mobile operators now have their own large and prominently placed booths on the show floor. They are proudly displaying the latest business solutions, cloud services, gaming, IoT and other innovative mobile offerings that they have to sell. They are hoping that these new revenue-generating opportunities will move them beyond merely connectivity providers and deliver the next wave of monetization opportunities.
- The Battle for the Great Indoors — Changes in devices, applications and social behavior are re-defining mobility from an on-the-go activity to a more nomadic activity, which takes place largely indoors. Traditional macro networks have a tough time penetrating buildings and reaching indoors. Hence operators are struggling to provide 5 bar coverage in homes, offices and public spaces. Traditional mobile technology vendors are now showcasing their small cell, Wi-Fi and DAS solutions as the answer to this challenge of lighting up the indoors. At one time, these solutions were relegated to the back corner, but they are increasingly becoming center stage as a solution to this new and growing problem. Not to mention, they offer an attractive new revenue opportunity for traditional macro network vendors.
- Selfie Journalism – TV Production in the Palm of Your Hand – It was truly amazing to watch journalists reporting on the show holding their smartphones at arms-length in one hand and an attached professional-grade microphone in the other. In the past crews of cameramen and soundmen would have been needed to produce professional quality reporting from remote locations. The mobile revolution has created “selfie-journalism”, replacing these crews with one reporter, a smartphone and some clever software. The BBC did an interesting story on how they filmed, edited and produced their coverage of MWC entirely on mobile devices.
- Mobile Payments – This May Be The Year? — The last point that I always seem to make on these reviews of MWC is on mobile payments. Once again, mobile payment solutions from banks, credit-card companies, MNOs and other providers were all competing to create a wallet-less world. However, unlike the promises of past shows, this may be the year that mobile payments finally take-off. With the launch of Apple Pay earlier this year and the big announcement that Samsung’s new S6 would incorporate technology from their recent acquisition of Loop (making mobile phones work with any existing magnetic card reader) we may finally start to leave our wallets at home.
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