Forget 5G and the IoT – MWC 2019 was all about audio

Mobile World Congress is an odd event.  It’s where the GSMA attempts to set the mobile agenda for the coming year, where major infrastructure deals are done behind closed doors and where the rest of the industry shows off its latest products.  This year, the big message was that 5G is coming, whatever that may be.  The IoT was relegated to something that’s mainly happening in China and the startup community.  What I found interesting was that audio was far more prominent than I can recall in any of the last 30 years of MWC and its predecessor shows.

You couldn’t miss the GSMA agenda.  The GSMA’s remit is to represent the interests of the world’s mobile operators.  Unusually for a trade body like that, it runs its own series of trade shows, of which the key one is the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.  That gives it an unparalleled opportunity to set the agenda and send a unified message to the world.  Often that message represents the agenda of the large, largely invisible, companies that provide the infrastructure which supports our mobile networks.  That happened this year, where the name of the game for the GSMA was 5G.  There are a lot of questions around what 5G is and why we need it, but most of that was muted.   Instead, what we got at Barcelona was bucketfuls of in-your-face hype with more use cases being promoted than you could shake a smartphone at.  NEC seemed to be honest with a stand claiming that it was “A Future Beyond Imagination”, which I read as suggesting they’ve no idea what it is.  Mobile CTOs, who should know better, repeated Qualcomm’s CEO Stephen Mollenkopf’s ridiculous 2017 statement that “5G will change society in ways we haven’t seen since the introduction of electricity”.  All that seemed to do is confirm the fact that marijuana use is now legal in both San Diego and Barcelona. 

To be fair, Qualcomm and the infrastructure suppliers do have a very good reason for promoting 5G, which is the fact that the 2G patents expired last year and the 3G ones don’t have long to run, so they desperately need to persuade everyone to use start moving to 5G products to get back a revenue stream from their more recent IP, as I explained in the Qualkia conspiracy.  Whether anyone actually needs 5G, other than those IP holders, is debatable.  That didn‘t stop companies like CloudMinds proudly proclaiming the “Cloud Robot is the Killer Application for 5G”.  They didn’t say what they’ll kill, but it could be profits.  There’s a nice theory that mobile operators only make money on the even “G”s.  2G and 4G were really profitable; 3G wasn’t and 5G could be the same.  That’s eloquently explained in Digits to Dollars’ review – “MWC 2019 – The State of 5G”, along with many more of the proposed use cases.  It’s recommended reading for anyone interested in the bleeding edge.  If you still need to vaccinate yourself against the hype, then go and read William Webb’s excellent book “The 5G Myth”. 

Last year the main message that the GSMA was putting out wasn’t 5G, but that the IoT was here, in the form of NB-IoT (Narrow Band IoT) – their new standard that would kill LoRa, Sigfox and anything else that pretended to usurp the position of the 3GPP standards as the natural provider of all things Wide Area.  Whilst the GSMA still held their Mobile IoT Summit the day before the main show, it wasn’t much more than admitting they’d not met the figures (China deployed only 10 million of the predicted 150 million NB-IoT devices) along with a warm corporate feeling of job done.  Outside China, the message from the operators on the conference stage was that the IoT was largely in the hands of startups.

That didn’t stop some of the major companies demonstrating their vision of NB-IoT based IoT solutions in the main exhibition.  The problem is that they looked like this:

That’s pretty much the same demonstration that Wilcoxon used to show on their Bluetooth stands in 2001.  Elsewhere, Smart City was either an architect’s model or a blank wall with a smart meter attached.  Nothing suggested a route to the billions.

Going down the road to the 4YFN exhibition didn’t throw any more light on how the IoT might scale.  Hoping to find enlightenment at the “IoT Business Models – The key of success” session reminded me why I find the Four Years From Never experience so depressing.  You get very different audiences at the two events.  GSMA audiences are generally Grey, Suited, Male and Asleep.  In contrast, 4YFN delegates tend to be Fresh, Young, Friendly and Naïve.  They packed the hall while the presenter struggled to get the projector working.  Eventually he asked if anyone had a memory stick and could convert his Mac presentation to PowerPoint.  In my experience, one of the first things to do when developing a business model is to understand the customer requirements.  The customer requirements for doing a presentation at MWC are very clear – the first of which is to provide a PowerPoint presentation.  If you can’t work that out, you really aren’t qualified to talk about business models.  When the much delayed business model slide eventually arrived, the value propositions were as flaky as everything else at 4YFN.  If all of the companies there manage to add a million IoT connections between them in the next four years I’d be very surprised.

Back in the main MWC exhibition, it was good to see that there are still passionate people prepared to do their all to promote their business.  Last year we had them dressed as smart cows; this year we got smart toilets.  I look forward to seeing how this trend continues in 2020.  It’s a shame I didn’t see this level of commitment to promotion in 4YFN.  That’s what startups should be about.

You expect all of the major phone vendors (except Apple, who have their own event) to be showing off their latest wares at MWC and they were, launching their various takes on foldable and dual screens.  In the past we might have seen the odd wireless headset hidden on a back wall of a stand, but this year every vendor was prominently displaying multiple sets of wireless earbuds at the front of their stands.  They were getting equal billing with the phones.  The Galaxy buds, although heavily promoted in Samsung’s pre-show launch, were by no means stealing the show.  In fact, they looked rather less game-changing than many of their competitors, who were doing their best to point out that you can now have earbuds in any colour as well as white.

Most vendors were offering a range of different designs, generally showing independent earbuds alongside pairs of “necklace” buds.  For the first time, these outnumbered headphones.  I’m not sure the overall number of headphones was lower, but the number of earbuds had multiplied, overtaking them.  Both were promoting superior audio quality and various flavours of noise cancellation, as well as control of ambient sound.

The silicon vendors are obviously helping to drive this.  In the China, Korea and Taiwan pavilions the many small booths were offering every conceivable lookalike variant of Airpod and Galaxy bud, each claiming that they were already shipping millions.

I don’t recall ever seeing delegates walking around with headphones, but there were a fair number wearing airpods, along with a number of other earbuds I’d not seen before.  That was the same on the metro and walking around Barcelona, as it seems to be wherever I go.

There’s no question that earbuds are here.  What was interesting is how much the audio experience was being promoted within the cellular industry.  Cellular has finally evolved beyond voice and acknowledged the need to do better.  There was a surprising number of companies promoting 5G for studio quality audio, either for live streaming of concerts or even utilising its low latency to allow collaborative recording from multiple locations.  Dolby were all over the show promoting Atmos for end to end audio quality over cellular, both in current solutions as well as 5G. 

I suspect that this evolution past voice is one of the things driving the resurgence of interest in audio quality.  When asked about how the enhanced cellular audio quality got past the phone to their earbuds I was surprised to find a fair number of companies able to talk knowledgably about their enhanced codecs – I don’t recall anyone going into that level of detail about AptX or LDAP before.  That increased emphasis on quality was reflected in the number of audio testing companies appearing on the show floor – something I don’t remember in previous years.  We had dummy heads, audio test chambers and simulation software for audio quality analysis.  I also noticed audio component and software companies beginning to emerge from private meetings rooms into the main exhibition, indicating a more mainstream role for MEMS devices, integrated DSPs and audio processing algorithms.

It was a subtle change, but repeated consistently across the exhibition and conference.  Audio is no longer the by-product of a phone call, where we have to put up with whatever quality is offered, but is being acknowledged as the end experience for which cellular is just the pipe.  One other small change came out of discussions with earbud vendors, who identified a new user requirement – the ease of taking an earbud in and out.  It seems that Apple’s Airpod has led to a new usage behaviour – simply lifting the earbud out of your ear when you want to stop listening to the Bluetooth stream to have a conversation.  That has a knock-on impact on the design of the charger and how easy it is to pop the earbud back in.  It also brings with it a functional requirement to automate pausing and resuming the audio stream.   When user requirements like this start being discussed, it’s a good sign that usage rather than technology is beginning to drive growth and product design.

Overall, it’s clear that the smartphone industry, and presumably its customers, has got over the loss of the 3.5mm socket and moved past their first offerings of wireless headsets to the point where they see them as just as important a part of the user experience as the smartphone itself.  Their current emphasis, or at least their sales message, still focuses on battery life, sound quality and price point (in that order), but innovation is appearing, both in form factor and in the gradual inclusion of other sensors into earbuds.  Wireless audio is finally coming of age.

It wasn’t the insight I’d expected to come away with this year.  For once the big message seemed irrelevant – it was the little message that was important.  Despite the effort put in by the GSMA to lead the horse to water, giving it the sparkling option of 5G or the still waters of IoT, it seemed that all the horse wanted was a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds which would cut out the noise of the PR hype.