Mobile World Congress: Is 2017's tech hitting the mark?

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Mobile World Congress, Earth's premier mobile event, brings together every global player even tangentially related to the industry. Staged at the Fira Via in Barcelona, the event itself is almost incomprehensibly vast.

Nine aircraft hangars worth of stalls, stands, stages and exhibits provide over 100,000 visitors with more to see than is physically possible. My smartphone pedometer informs me that I covered over 34 miles over the four days, and I feel like I barely scratched the surface.

That said, here are my takeaways from MWC 2017:

Smartphone innovation is almost dead

As one would expect at an international mobile event, all the well-known (and less well-known) manufacturers use MWC to showcase their new phones. Unfortunately, smartphones have now been around for long enough that what’s billed as a manufacturer’s next generation phone contains only minor iterative improvements to the last generation – a marginally better camera, slightly longer battery life, another pixel or two per inch of screen. The only novel exceptions were Sony’s Xperia XZ which can take videos in slow motion (but does anyone really care?) and Nokia’s attempt to capitalise on nostalgia with their reimagined 3310 (novel in that it’s based on a model from fifteen years ago). The phones on offer essentially mirrored the current smartphone market: literally thousands of phones, but with near-identical functionality, differing only in build quality and price point.

VR for PR

Almost every second stall at MWC sported a VR headset. Some were fun (HTC, Intel and Samsung all had various VR games that were as amusing to watch people playing as they were to play), and some were useful (Samsung’s VR meeting space was surprisingly credible, and Ubuntu’s AR hardhat showed me how to fix some pipes on a wall). The majority, however, were gimmicks, and involved queuing in line to ultimately watch a product demo for a car, tablet or other consumer technology completely unrelated to VR. There was a definite feeling that exhibitors felt obliged to shoehorn in VR whenever possible, but few carried it off in a way that made good use of the technology. Neither did being the hundredth person to strap a sweaty mask to their forehead add to the experience.

IoT : Everything connected to everything else, everywhere

IoT (Internet of things) was one of the hot topics this year. It is essentially a technology that allows everyday objects to connect to the internet, allowing remote data collection and control of systems and devices. Every bluechip organisation at MWC claimed to be on the cusp of changing the world by connecting everything to everything else. The automotive industry featured heavily with Ford, Seat, Mercedes and Jaguar all proclaiming the merits of connected cars. Healthcare has also been a driving force in IoT, with the ability to connect health devices and medical technology a boon for clinical data collection. Perhaps the most futuristic and inspiring use of IoT was in building ‘Smart cities’: cities that can monitor air pollution, optimize power and water usages, improve transport and manage schools, law enforcement and community resources.

Scary smart AI, Big Data, and the rise of the robots

Much like VR, there were a lot of robots on display purely for promotional purposes. Robots that will shake your hand, take your photo, play football, and dance for your amusement. But the current climate of concern around robots replacing human jobs is not unfounded. There was much talk of machine learning, big data, automation and artificial intelligence. IBM were touting the ability of their Watson platform and new AI assistants like Siri, Cortana and Alexa are appearing every day. The ability of machines to crunch impossibly large sets of data, spot trends and continually improve at a frightening rate was promoted extensively and has the potential to radically change not just how we use mobile technology, but also how companies profile and interact with us.

5G

All of the carriers, device manufacturers and almost everyone else was extremely excited about the advent of 5G (5th generation mobile network). The main difference to the current 4G is that the proposed 5G network will be allow for exponentially faster data throughout (some tests are over 1Gb/s). However, as much as the technology is hailed as a game-changer for every mobile technology, it’s not likely to be available to consumers until 2020.

Somewhat surprisingly, even the ‘new and disruptive’ technologies featured at MWC will all be very familiar to anyone with even a casual interest in technology. VR, although arguably not quite yet mainstream, is widely available across a number of platforms. ‘Big Data’ has been a problem (or opportunity, depending on who you speak to) for years. IBM’s Watson and Google’s machine learning projects are widely publicized and covered extensively in the tech media, and robots and drones are nothing new either.

That isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t new and exciting things happening. It’s that that they are happening at the points where these technologies intersect and become mutually enabling. 5G combined with VR allows for wireless high definition VR headsets, removing the need for being tethered to a computer. IoT combined with machine learning allows for wearable technology to deliver tailored health advice for autonomous cars and self-optimizing traffic systems. Big data combined with smart AI allows for phenomenal (and frightening) opportunities for targeted marketing and predictive analytics. The confluence of these developing technologies creates potential for novel and fascinating opportunities across all industries.

I have heard more than a few attendees remark that Mobile World Congress should just be called ‘World Congress’. What started as a conference for telecoms providers has evolved to include a huge ecosystem of interconnected technologies and industries. As new technologies converge to create new niches and specialisations, and as ‘mobile’ becomes increasingly ubiquitous in all aspects of our lives, MWC will become an increasingly eclectic affair, in which the lines between technologies become even blurrier and everything is, indeed, connected to everything else, everywhere

Colin Sykes is business development manager at Edinburgh based mobile software company, xDesign.

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