Mobile World Congress unmasked

It’s back, and it feels busier than ever.  Last year we had the Mobile “We’re not in lockdown” Congress, which was buzzy, but lacking the participation of most Chinese and Asian companies, and hampered by everyone having to wear masks the whole time.  This year, the masks are gone; it really is a Mobile World Congress and everyone is back promoting all that’s new in mobile. 

I’m sure Barcelona is happy to have everyone back, although the show’s presence is more muted around the city.  In the past, every available advertising hoarding seemed to have been taken up by mobile tech companies.  This year, the only MWC related ad I saw on the metro was for One Plus’ new phone, which was competing for our attention with the usual adverts for yoghurt, underwear and exploding kittens.

The companies that were missing, or present at a reduced scale last year, look as if they’ve spent their lockdown planning this return.  Not only are they here in force, they’re here at scale.  Huawei’s booth took up most of Hall 1, which probably means it covered around 100,000 square feet. You could experience most things wireless, including golf.  It even had a fountain in the middle of it.  It was probably larger than most of the major US company stands put together.  The attractions on these Far Eastern stands were also bigger: Korea’s SK Telecom had a full-size electric plane mock-up on their stand, which had delegates queuing for an hour for the chance to sit in it.  In contrast, Dell had a Lego train set, which you weren’t allowed to play with.

Anyone with a bent for conspiracy theories would probably see this as China sticking up two fingers to the Chips Act.  The pragmatic response is that they’ve got on with the execution and if the West is going to compete, we need to persuade a lot more of our kids that STEM is the thing to get excited about rather than wanting to be an influencer.  China, Taiwan and Korea were being very clear about the extent of their technical competence.

In a similar vein, Taiwan’s Mediatek bagged the stand next to Qualcomm this year, with Mediatek’s being twice the size.  Mediatek have always been seen as the second player in the market for mobile phone silicon, but it’s another statement about the growing confidence of the technical capabilities of these companies. 

However, the perceived wisdom is that size doesn’t necessarily matter; what’s more important is what you do with it.  On that front, MWC23 is more difficult to read than usual.  Companies were displaying a lot more of what we already have, but not much which feels new.  5G is seen as a done deal, with the first billion 5G contracts now in place, although the network operators are still worrying about how they are going to make money out of 5G, confirming the adage that it’s generally the even numbered “G”s which are profitable.  6G is still some way off (unless you’re Docomo, in which case it’s allegedly coming in 2025), assisted by the promise of profitability if O-RAN (the Open Radio Access Network) works.  However, that’s a discussion which is generally taking place behind closed doors in Hall 2, where stands are basically two stories of plain walls with security guards limiting access to CEOs and Government ministers.  As the MWC slogan goes, it’s “where industries connect to shape our futures”, with regulation and roll-outs being decided away from the gaze of mere mortals.

There was not a lot new in terms of phones.  Folding phones are appearing on more stands, increasingly reprising the clamshell format of the late 90s.  Companies are tying to establish green credentials by telling us how much of the case is recycled, (it’s not much), and Nokia, or rather HKD – the company that has acquired the brand for their phones, has announced a new model which consumers can repair themselves.  They suggest that it should be possible to replace a screen or battery in just a few minutes.  It’s fascinating how much attention this has got, which suggests that longevity and repairability are becoming far more important to consumers.  It may be the key learning from this year’s show.  Other than that, phone evolution seems to be all about more lenses and cameras, turning the backs of phones into a nightmare for people with trypophobia.

The new Nokia phone is an eminently sensible idea, which consumers can relate to.  The old, enterprise Nokia took a rather different tack, which felt more like the “I’m not dead yet” refrain from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  In the confines of their expansive stand, they were promoting a vision for 2030, including the interesting concept of a network on the moon.  I suppose you have to do something during the long dark Finnish nights, but I’m not sure this is it.

Audio takes the stage

The area where innovation was on display was in audio.  I was surprised at the number of different companies demonstrating advanced audio algorithms.  Some were pushing high quality and loss free codecs, but a lot more were concentrating on adaptive noise cancellation and hearing enhancement, aiming to make voice easier to understand, whether that’s to address hearing loss or ambient noise.  SK Telecom were even supporting niche requirements, showing a Korean startup specialising in hearing enhancement for taxi drivers.

One demo which appeared to cause some real excitement was the Bluetooth SIG’s first public display of their new Auracast broadcast technology.  This allows multiple different audio broadcasts to coexist in the same space, with a consumer able to pick and choose what they listen to, using a simple menu on a phone.  It’s been talked about for some time, but the opportunity to experience low latency, high quality broadcast audio for the first time was impressive, bringing home the fact everything the industry has been doing for the last two decades has been about personal audio.  Shared audio opens up a whole new world of audio applications, which we should see emerge over the coming months.

On the subject of ears, one of the more bizarre new products was a Smart Ear Dehumidifier, being offered on the Korean tech startup stand.  You can even purchase a matching Smart Ear Dehumidifier for your dog (it’s called a DearBud) and dehumidify smartly together.

Not so smart

It used to be the case that everything was smart, whether it was your home, your city or your pet.  The adjective has started to fall out of favour, although the Chinese companies in particular still feel that everything needs to be controllable from a phone app.  The most unlikely offering this year was from Xioami (which seem to be rebranding themselves as “Mi”), with their smart blender.

If you’ve ever used a blender / liquidiser, you’ll know that their main aim in life is to come to pieces and spray as much tomato / strawberry puree as possible across every surface in your kitchen.  Why anyone thinks it might be a good idea to let go of the blender and play with a phone app, while your blender vibrates its way off your worktop to fulfil its destiny is a mystery.  Or just an example of why you should never let app designers anywhere near real products.

Back in 2001, Steve Jobs predicted “future cities would be designed around this device”.  The “this device” he admired so much being the Segway.  It wasn’t his best prediction, but 22 years later there’s some new promise.  The original Segway company was acquired by China’s Ninebot in 2015 They rapidly gave up on building Segways, but are now a leading manufacturer of electric scooters and mopeds.  They’re ideal products for Barcelona, and probably one of the few being displayed that deserves the appellation of smart.  I’d certainly give them the prize for the most appropriate use of “Smart” at MWC23.

Who fancies a tattoo?  If you’d mistakenly gone to the old Fira exhibition site this weekend, you’d have been spoilt for choice, as it was Barcelona’s “Get Tattooed Again” festival.  In the Gran Fira, which houses MWC, one of the busiest stands I saw was Imprintu’s; Imprintu being LG’s neat little connected personal tattoo printer, allowing you to enjoy a “new beauty ritual for joyful, spontaneous self-expression”.

Delegates were queueing up to get their free tattoos.  I’m not sure it’s the greatest use of mobile technology, but expect it to be on your teenager’s wish list for next Christmas.  Although, given the people queuing up to get their free tattoos, it will probably on your partner’s and parents’ wish lists as well.

AI and Metaverse – the missing buzzwords

Although MWC loves hype, there is a degree of reality about it.  That was manifested in the relative lack of reference to AI or the metaverse, at least in the seven giant halls which comprise the main show.  (We’ll get to 4YFN in a minute.)  Even the VR and AR exhibitors, like HTC’s Vive stand, were concentrating on what their devices could actually do, without the need for pinning their future on someone else’s bandwagon.  Some couldn’t resist using AI as an adjective to up the ante, but in general we saw pragmatism winning out.  A few were pushing AIoT, presumably on the grounds that two conjoined acronyms are better than one, although none were clear whether their contraction had lost the Internet or its Intelligence?

Where is the IoT?

For several years before Covid hit, the IoT was a major theme of Mobile World Congresses.  The predictions were for billions of devices being shipped, based on the promise of the new NB-IoT specification. It’s still seen as a growth area, but there’s a growing realisation that making it happen and making money from it are both very difficult propositions.  Quite a few telecom providers were paying lip service to the dream that the IoT and low latency connections would be the “cash cow” for 5G by putting robots centre stage on their stands.  They always attract the crowds, but the industry needs to do much more to make IoT a commercial reality.  In previous years, we’d seen connected cows, but smart agriculture seems to have gone into hiding this year.  People are realising that the IoT is hard.  One of the wisest observations I heard this week was from 1nce – a German IoT SIM provider, which was that IoT needs to be viewed as a supply chain problem, not a connectivity problem.  We’ve still some way to go before enough companies understand that.

One proposition which was interesting was from Wiliot, who were promoting the AIoT. In their case, it  stood for the Ambient IoT, using self-powered sensors.  One of the barriers to the vision of billions of IoT sensors is how to power them.  Designing low power devices with a battery life of ten years or more is immensely challenging.  Wiliot have taken the approach of incorporating a energy harvesting antenna which picks up power from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth transmissions.  It’s a tiny amount of power, but it allows intermittent measurements and transmission.  They make a lot of the potential of the lowest power options envisaged in 6G, but claim to be able to work with a Bluetooth hub in the years before 6G arrives.  At the end of the day, it’s essentially an active RFID tag.  However, the term IoT was first invented to describe massive deployments of RFID tags around twenty-five years ago.  That never happened, but it seems that things have come full circle.  If we’re lucky, this attempt will be more successful.

4YFN – Four Years From Now

The smaller stands at MWC are invariably some of the most interesting.  Although the seven main halls of the show contain plenty of them in the nationally sponsored areas, the steady growth of the accompanying 4YFN exhibition now host hundreds of small startups, sponsored by accelerators, incubators and government funded startup schemes. They range from brand new companies, to startups which may have a decade or more of experience, which are still looking for the critical success which moves them up to the main show halls.  It provides a great opportunity, although for many, the name probably signifies Four Years from Never.

I’ve started a number of tech companies, and shows like this are vitally important, as they provide the opportunity to find your first few key customers, who will help guide your transition from vision to the reality of producing something that someone will pay for.  That means you have to take the opportunity to sell, make clear what you are offering and engage with anyone who pauses to look at the stand.  Most of the people you talk to will never engage again, but if you’re lucky, one or two will, and if you’re very lucky, that will be the start of a commercial engagement that turns you from a startup into a real company.  What I find so dispiriting about 4YFN is that hardly any of the startups there seem to understand that.  You can walk past most booths with no idea of what they do, with the people who should be evangelising their vision sitting engrossed in their phones or laptops.  A few do know how to do this properly.  An excellent example was the Matsuko stand, where the young developer stopped me, explained and demonstrated their holographic application.  She and her colleagues totally understood what being a startup is about and deserve to succeed.  I hope someone is funding them.  Too many around them appeared to think that coming up with a snappy name is all they needed to do.

Trying to guess what a startup does from its name does help pass the time when nobody wants to talk to you. turned out to be exactly what it said – an application using Artificial Intelligence to make sure that all of your plates of food are equally Instagrammable.  Sniptech, however, was promoting personal finance, although the name suggested it should be vasectomies.  Many other company names were simply impenetrable.  In contrast to the MWC halls, AI was difficult to avoid, with almost every stand claiming to use it to solve your problem.  It would improve your beauty, help you choose your clothes, or encourage your toddlers to play.  The last one was a common theme, presumably as young startup parents discovered that attention seeking toddlers and starting a company aren’t a great combination.  Although turning off their laptops and playing with their children might have a better result than resorting to AI. 

Many of the visions of these startups come from everyday problems, which can be a very powerful reason for a company, as Uber demonstrates.  How often it scales is a more difficult question.  One thing that was very apparent across all of the startup stands is how few of the Western startups were working on hardware.  For that, you really needed to look at the Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean startups.   That is very worrying.  Hardware is hard – I know that from founding several startups.  However, there is no reason that design can’t be done anywhere in the world; manufacturing can happen wherever it is most cost effective.  The lack of western hardware startups suggests a deeper malaise, which spans education and finance and needs to be addressed.

In conclusion…

 The reason for constantly coming back to Mobile World Congress is its sheer range.  It is the engine that continues to drive the telecommunications industry which has had such an effect on our daily lives for the last two decades, and is also the catalyst for the innovation that we see in 4YFN, some of which may become part of our future experience.  At the moment, the 4YFN hopefuls are just fleas on the juggernaut that is mobile, but the juggernaut needs that constant input of innovation, lest we grow tired of it.

Going back to one of the show’s straplines,  MWC claims to be the place “where industries connect to shape our futures”.  At times, its feels like it can be interpreted as moulding us – taking individual pieces of clay and forming us, golem-like, into beings instructed to consume whatever new technology and application is available, even if that’s just printing tattoos on our foreheads.  This year felt like a possible turning point.  The mobile telecoms industry is back and out in force.  Yet there’s a new backdrop of political unease, protectionism and supply chain realities that flavour many of the conversations and perspectives.  Despite the buzz, it seemed that this might be a year to take a breath to pause and contemplate a new way for the industry to evolve and work together.  There’s an underlying uncertainty around which needs more collaboration and calm-headed thinking – something I hope was discussed in the ministerial tracks.

A final word, or picture, should go to Sensor Tower – a data analytics company focused on providing companies with better intelligence through analysis of their data.  In a show where everyone is trying to predict the future, with market analysts crawling out of every crevice, it was refreshing to see a sense of humour (or was it reality) taking pride of place on their stand.

But even she didn’t manage to predict that during this Mobile World Congress it would snow in Barcelona.

And, as Porky Pig used to tell us, before Peppa took over our screens, “That’s all folks”.