In 2020, the Mobile World Congress was one of the first victims of Covid, denying over 100,000 attendees their annual spring outing to Barcelona. Two years, later, it’s one of the first major exhibitions to stage a credible come-back. It’s not as big – the GSMA, who organise it are predicting around half the attendance figures. Despite that, hosting 50,000+ people for a four day conference and exhibition is still a major step back to normality.
It’s great, if a little strange, to be back. Enforced mask wearing makes serendipitous networking difficult, but the surprise is how busy it is. At the start of the first day, entry queues stretched around the front of the exhibition halls, and by mid-morning it felt busier that you’d normally expect on the opening day. It is smaller; there are empty gaps in the halls, and it’s absorbed the 4YFN startup event, which is a definite move for the better. But it was busy, with a bustling vibe, giving everyone the feeling that the constraints of Covid are behind us.
One of the strange things is that it feels that quite a lot of companies have forgotten how to exhibit at events like this. They’ve got their stand and they’re displaying stuff on it. Some have remembered to add some signage to say what they do (although a fair number seem to think that’s going to happen by osmosis), but when you walk onto the stand, nobody seems to know what to do. That’s particularly apparent with some of the small startups, who appear to be hunched over their laptops, carrying on with their application development, oblivious to anyone trying to work out what they’re meant to be promoting.
It’s not just the startups. I visited one country’s trade technology stand (I won’t embarrass them by saying which), and asked what they were promoting at MWC. I’d expected an answer along the lines of 5G testbeds, or innovation catapults; or that their country was a great place to start a company, but all I got was a blank stare. I tried to make it a bit easier by asking “Why are you here”, which elicited a long pause before the reply of “Well, we’re always here.” Jumping to the chase, I asked which of the companies they were sponsoring had stands at MWC this year, at which point someone was called over to hand me a directory, helpfully adding that “some are in this hall, and others are in other halls”. A similar lack of purpose was reflected on a nearby stand whose signage was a large QR code on the wall saying “Scan this code to meet the team”.
That learning curve aside, it was great to be back. When you’re following technology trends, a major value of events like this is the chance to talk to lots of people, listening to their differing views on the market: what’s selling, what not; where companies are in their development cycles; who’s announcing products; whether the components are available to make them; seeing whether the supporting test equipment exists to qualify the promised technology; then synthesizing the answers and reflecting them back to gauge what is actually happening. Over the last two years, it’s been incredibly difficult to have enough of those conversations to determine the real status of many new technologies. Instead, much recent market analysis has been based on PR releases, which can be significantly divorced from reality.
One of the most useful aspects of MWC is the large number of small tech companies from around the world who are experimenting with new ideas, particularly those attending with their respective national trade missions. A lot of them are back. Sadly, we didn’t have the usual number of small Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean manufacturers, who are a useful barometer of what is actually selling in the Far East, but it feels that it’s suddenly become a lot easier to see what is hot and what definitely is not.
Youve’ probably have seen the pictures of the robot cocktail mixologist, the Boston Dynamic robodog, the fairground ride and the VR experiences that litter the big corporate stands. They’re mostly window dressing for PR opportunities and only serve to remind us that these companies spend too much on marketing. Most of the real business of MWC still goes on behind the closed doors of multi-storey stands, often belonging to companies you’ve never heard of. That’s where billions of dollars of 5G infrastructure deals are discussed and settled. What I find more interesting is looking at the other exhibitors to try and assess what’s likely to affect our everyday lives. This is my analysis of what MWC2022 really showed us, where I’ll attempt to answer your questions about the future of mobile technology.
Should I buy a new phone?
No. Unless your current one breaks, wait another year. Most analysts agree that we’re past “peak smartphone”, and people are waiting longer to upgrade. Now that the majority of new phones have 5G, the industry is trying to work out how to differentiate and how to eat into Apple’s market share. Or at least grab some of their profits. There are a few neat tricks on folding and sliding formats, but for most, innovation is predominantly in the camera. Oppo – one of the big Chinese brands, along with their sub-brand OnePlus, have co-opted Hasselblad to lend their camera expertise and name. (For anyone under the age of 30, Hasselblad was the medium formal roll-film camera that went to the moon and was used for those iconic shots of the earth.) Honor are also making the most of their new camera, claiming it’s better than the iPhone 13 with more pixels than you’d think it’s useful to have. But given most people apply filters to the resulting photo, one wonders what’s the point, particularly as you can get a very competent DSLR for the cost of these phones.
The “wait until next year” ties into one of Qualcomm’s press releases, which announced their support for the new Bluetooth LE Audio, which they expect to see in next year’s phones. That brings the opportunity to share audio, as well an enabling some interesting broadcast scenarios. It’s likely to usher in a lot of very interesting new audio applications, including features like better spatial audio. But it wasn’t apparent in any phone released at this MWC.
Where was the audio innovation?
There’s a lot of new TWS earbuds, which are probably better than the previous crop of TWS earbuds, but nothing revolutionary. However, this is a market which has grown at breakneck speed, with the result that a lot of enabling technologies that are needed for the next generation are still catching up. Bluetooth LE audio is obviously one of those, but there’s a lot more going on. I get the impression that vendors are waiting for a few more of these to mature, as they have the potential to define the next generation of hearables.
The earbud market is heading towards a billion units per year – not bad for a product category which is only just over six years old. That was reflected in over a dozen companies exhibiting components for the next generation at MWC, from the giants like Qualcomm to small startups. We’re seeing innovation in transducers, with the appearance of MEMS speakers – USound were claiming that they are first to market and now in production. Multiple companies are springing up in the audio algorithm market, taking us beyond the level of today’s ANC. Mimi Hearing Technologies are honing their business in tailoring the audio experience to the user’s hearing and are already featured in a number of commercial products. Korea’s Deep Hearing Corporation are offering ways of enhancing conversation, making it easier to focus in on a voice amidst background noise. Cochi offered “sound understanding beyond speech”, looking at environmental sounds to provide alerts, or even interpret health, while Dreamwave had some interesting ideas on spatial audio. Implementing these algorithms in an earbud is challenging, but two silicon companies were present with ultra-low power AI edge processors, which provide the capability for advanced voice processing – Ambient and Greenwaves, the latter demonstrating the first samples of their new chip. As these get integrated into earbuds, the future will sound interesting. Sonority – a Japanese startup funded by NTT, had a neat demonstrator of a sound bubble. It doesn’t move around with you yet, but demonstrates a growing awareness of the need to combat and contain noise pollution. Incidentally, Deep Hearing had the best give-away canvas bags – very sturdy and emblazoned with the company mission statement – Free us From Noise.
Finally, Qualcomm is offering a codec which allegedly has a sampling frequency of 384kHz. Apply Nyquist’s theorem to that and it converts to an audio bandwidth of around 192 kHz. It’s just as well that the world’s broadcasters have turned off their long wave radio broadcasts, because that’s the frequency they used for transmission. It’s ten times higher than any human can hear and feels like specmanship gone mad. It might please you pet bat, but that’s about it.
Four Years from Now (or Four years from Never, depending on your level of cynicism) is the startup exhibition which has grown up alongside MWC. For the first time, it was colocated, which is a great improvement. As you approach the exhibition hall you’re greeted with the statement that “The future of business in downstairs”. Unfortunately, an hour and a half after the start of day two, most of the exhibitors hadn’t made it to their stands, which might be a harbinger of which will succeed. As with any start-up event, a lot of it is likely to be ephemeral, but 4YFN always feels a lot more solid than events like CES, not least because most of the participants have a vision and a desire to make a change, rather than just a hope of being the next unicorn.
There are a lot of startups with worthy goals. Whilst the major companies told slick tales about “saving the world”, (multiple presentations used exactly that phrase), a good percentage of the 4YFN startups were trying to put that into practice, generally, by using AI and the circular economy. Some were heart-warming, such as Kidlabs, which is helping to promote toy sharing. Some were just weird – such as the startup promoting an AI powered app to manage hair loss. But they’ve probably got a tech savvy customer demographic who are worrying about impending bald patches, so they could do well.
What about AI?
I wonder if any other word has had such a contrasting meaning bestowed on it? For years, an ai has been a gentle, three-toed sloth, slowly munching and sleeping its way around the South American rainforests, famed for being the slowest mammal on earth. Now it’s been capitalised and is the must-have power-dressing initialism that is de rigueur for any credible tech business. Almost every stand leant on it, with their offering using “deep learning and AI”, or even “limitless AI”, but not many managed to explain how it was different from what they’d been doing in the days when it was just called big data.
At the corporate level, there was a lot of talk about data clean rooms, which is how they hope to clean up the image of consumer data mining, whilst carrying on with what they’re currently doing, but potentially at a greater scale. Vodafone went one better, announcing their “Economy of Things”, allowing devices to trade data with each other. They’re predicting that there will be 30 billion of them by 2025, conversing securely with each other using blockchain. Their first application is to allow EV chargers to make sure that they’re only charging your car with electricity from renewable resources. So that’s obviously going to save the world. Vodafone were less enthusiastic about the suggestion it could turn into the metaverse for machines, with the prospect of smart washing machines sharing selfies of your dirty undies. On which note…
Whatever happened to the IoT?
The headline story is that it’s all still happening. The GSMA provided numbers from Thomas Rostech of Infineon, claiming that 127 IoT devices are being connected to the internet every second. If you do the sums, that’s 4 billion a year, which, assuming no growth, gets us to around 36 billion by 2030 – not too far off Vodafone’s numbers. Thomas also reckons that every consumer will have 15 connected devices by 2030, which suggests around 120 billion devices, equating to a compound annual growth rate of 46%. We’ve seen these sorts of numbers before. They weren’t credible in 2010. They don’t feel any more credible now. There are certainly plenty of deployments where connected sensors make sense, which the big consultancies were promoting, but those are mostly in vertical applications. Outside that, most mention of the IoT remained on the smaller stands, who are obviously still struggling to make a business of it. The fact remains that the IoT is hard, and not helped by a lot of poor implementations. One startup – IoT Factory, had the dispiriting headline that “92% of the IoT firmware they had evaluated was vulnerable”. That doesn’t surprise me, but it suggests we’re still a long way from the promise of the billions.
I anyone still excited about 5G?
Before Covid hit, 5G was largely hype. In the following three years it’s matured. Infrastructure has been installed, handsets have shipped, and everyone has accepted it’s here. It was still out there battling “AI” for the position of most used initialism on stands, but it’s now mostly a work in progress.
What is being debated is how much it will cost? At the start of the week, keynote speakers put the infrastructure investment for the West at around $500 billion. There was also some considerable hand-wringing about whether China was ahead of the rest of the world. The answer is almost certainly yes, not least because China has no problem with installing Huawei infrastructure. But that’s a truth nobody wanted to acknowledge. Nor did they want to dwell on the uncomfortable fact that history has proven that operators only make money on the even numbered “G”s. Which takes us to 6G.
Yes – they’re already talking about 6G, although it’s sufficiently far away that the discussion is turning to the interim “5G Advanced”. Nobody’s quite sure what that is. It will probably turn out to be whatever’s ready for sale when the infrastructure suppliers feel they need a new revenue stream. However, one of the other interesting things I noticed was the growing number of companies talking about private 5G networks. That may be one reason for the lack of depth in any of the 6G scoping – why design something new if you can flog what you’ve already got to a new market? What will be interesting is seeing how far the existing network operators will be able to access the private 5G network market, or whether they will be bypassed, by nimbler competitors. The silicon and infrastructure suppliers appeared to be hedging their bets by pitching to both.
MWC wouldn’t be MWC without lots of people prefixing their business ideas with “smart”. Surprisingly, smart cities appeared to have taken a back seat, possibly because they’re also in the “too difficult” category. Instead, the focus was on smart homes and smart offices.
Most of the big handset vendors have jumped into the smart home market, with smart locks, smart light bulbs and FTTR (fibre to the room) to enable it. One of the weirdest smart demos was from Korean Digico, who had a stand full of white-coated technicians putting people into smart wheelchairs and following them around with smart rubbish bins. ZTE had a stand of smart hoovers, but rather anachronistically had a real lady with a brush cleaning the floor around them. It all looked like an attempt to sell additional stuff to people who had given up on buying new smartphones. Xiaomi even had a smart kettle, which I really didn’t understand. To my mind, a kettle either boils the water or it doesn’t.
Your mouth, your eyes, your wrist, your thighs.
While we’re on the subject of smart, there were a lot of companies with a view on owning parts of your body, whether that’s for health, fitness, or just sucking up your data. I don’t know whether we’ve all developed bad breath while we’ve been working from home, but the mouth got quite a lot of focus. Oral-B, not a company you’d normally think of as a mobile company, was demonstrating their new connected toothbrushes. Another startup, Smartooth, had an inspection brush to check for dental caries and then arrange a visit to your dentist, while Smart Lollipops want your saliva to see if they can detect the onset of diabetes or coeliac issues.
Others value your eyes for new augmented reality sensing or identification biometrics, whilst the wrist lovers are still promoting an endless range of smart watches and wristbands to measure your vital signs. One new thing I learnt is that thigh cuffs are apparently really good for gait analysis and detecting if you’re likely to have a fall. And if the answer is yes, there are plenty of companies ready to sell you a fall detection watch to alert your loved ones. I remember designing some of this stuff twenty years ago, so it seems that it’s still a difficult market to crack, which I suspect has little to do with the technology and a lot more to do with a lack of customer interest.
Don’t forget the pets.
It’s not just humans. There were a plethora of companies eager to look after your cats. Purrsong have a Lavvietag which can monitor how often your cat drinks and pees, to check whether it has a urinary tract infection, whilst Plutosquare were showing a robotic litter tray which has an option for using tofu based litter. I found it really gratifying that someone has finally found a use for tofu. If all of that is still too much hassle, Xiaomi has a smart dog.
What about the kids?
There were a lot of things aimed at kids. I’ve mentioned the toysharing startup, which I liked, and there were some nice “build a robot” companies, but the majority were focusing on education, with the prospect of turning your little darlings into the next Einstein, which seemed to take most of the fun out of childhood. For those brave parents who let them out of the house, tracking is becoming a necessity. Xplora – a children’s smart watch company, had a worrying statistic on their stand, claiming the 20% of kids now wear a smartwatch, allowing their parents to track them. On being challenged, they admitted that figure is just in Norway, which seems to be the global leader in parental insecurity. I don’t know whether Norway has a particularly high level of child abusers, or perhaps Norwegian children get lost easily (possibly because of the dark nights), but it looks like a growing trend, as other countries are following Norwegian parents down the same route. Other companies had watches to monitor your child’s heart rate, but I’m not sure why. I’d like to hope that there are a few kids out there hacking their watches to raise their parent’s heart rate. The fact remains that monitoring children is big business. I suspect that Xiaomi is busy developing a smart child. Which shouldn’t be confused with a digital twin.
Where are the business models?
After three days of taking in all this innovation, you start to wonder how many of these ideas have a business model. It’s easy to be reminded of the propositions from the South Sea bubble claim of the 1720’s for “an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”. That feeling of absurdity came over in many of the company slogans on the stands. Here are some of my favourites from MWC 2022:
“The platform of platforms”
“Reach exponential value with technology”
“The platform for enjoying experiences” and
“We are your sherpas in the metaverse”.
Incidentally, there was very little mention of the metaverse. But as I said at the start, MWC always seems to be a bit closer to reality.
The worst idea at MWC
There’s normally a stand-out bad idea at these shows, which everyone agrees is stupid. Sometimes it is stupid and dies a death, like the smart hairbrush of a few years back. Sometimes it isn’t, like the selfie stick. Although everyone laughed at the selfie stick, it was probably the most successful concept ever launched at CES, which tells us that technology isn’t always what consumers want.
This year I was struck by a quote from Gartner on Dubber’s stand, which was that “75% of conversations at work will be recorded and analysed by 2025”. That doesn’t fall into the silly product category – it is genuinely chilling. Dubber offers recording and analysis. They are very upfront about it, with the mantra of “Collect, Analyse”. Which is something that the IoT industry needs to take on board.
Once you realise where this is going, it becomes apparent that there is a whole new industry looking at keeping tabs on everything we say. I counted three startups offering to monitor interactions during meetings to report on the mental attitude of participants. Speechmatics were demonstrating their autonomous speech recognition system which trains on voice samples from the web to recognise speech more efficiently, regardless of who is talking and plenty of other companies are looking to extract data from it. As Dubber also proclaimed on their stand, “Voice Data is Rocketfuel”.
I don’t know how many people are putting the pieces together, but some are. If this comes to pass, everyone will potentially be ranked on what they say and how they interact, which will probably have little to do with their ability and will stifle innovation. What benefit this will have for business efficiency and innovation is debatable. HR will probably love it, but I suspect it will rank with PowerPoint as one of the greatest business tool disasters ever. (If you think PowerPoint improves business decisions, please read Edward Tufte’s critique of it.) Despite the fact that this is a stupendously bad idea, which I hope doesn’t happen, I am sure there are already large consultancies wetting themselves about the possibilities and rating it as double-plus-good on their sales forecasts.
And that was about it for the innovation melting pot that was MWC 2022. It may not echo the high level view from the GSMA mandarins, but that’s the joy of MWC – there’s something for everyone. Let’s hope next year brings even more of it back to Barcelona.