MWC 2017: What comes after the smartphone?

The World’s largest tradeshow for the mobile industry closed its’ doors for another year, leaving the 108,000 visitors (up 7% from 2016) with sore feet. Apparently 23% of the attendees this year were woman, which is probably a surprise to anyone who walked the halls amongst the usual sea of suits. The industry has a diversity issue but given the number of sidecar ‘Women in Tech’ events taking place throughout the week, it seems to have finally woken up to the fact.

The Barcelona’s vast Fira Gran Via was filled with over 2,300 exhibitors. This year’s theme according to the GSM was ‘Mobile: The Next Element, reflecting the elemental role of mobile in the lives of billions of people around the world’. This was probably lost on many in attendance who could be forgiven for thinking they’d walked through Mr Benn’s magic door and arrived at the Geneva motor show, or had they been bussed in through the tradesmen’s entrance by Hall 8.0, CES given the array of drones, robots and the plethora of other CE products on display. MWC continues to evolve and it was striking to see how far it has come from its infrastructure roots.

There was a lot of talk about 5G as a ‘transformative’ technology, much like 4G before it, and 3G before that. 5G is still some way off as standards have yet to be agreed but the consensus was that the advent of the latest G will be game changing for IoT, wearables and other sectors like autonomous vehicles.

Cars, cars, cars. Everywhere. The auto manufactures were out in force this year demonstrating their digital assistants and new ‘connected experiences’ that us humanoids will be able to enjoy before the robots take over. In the meantime the Robots were making their MWC debut in Hall 8.0 alongside a myriad of drone manufactures. DJI the market leader was there with their new enterprise drones which drew a big crowd.

Unsurprisingly Artificial Intelligence was being hailed in many of the consumer products on show, well at least the promise of the technology being baked into future roadmaps. IBM Watson was in town and there were a few examples of companies utilizing the platform including SK Telecom’s Echo clone that uses Watson to handle voice interactions. There were quite a few different voice enabled Echo-like products, with many now including screens in an effort to address the limitations around discoverability of services in this voice-enabled future.

There was no evidence of Amazon themselves or Apple, but Facebook and Baidu had numerous meeting rooms, but all no doubt had representatives operating behind the scenes. Google’s Android was only visible by its range of juice bars between Halls 2 and 3.

There were phones. Loads of phones. But unlike years past, they’re all the same form factor, with only stickers on the screens to indicate a new chip or a camera that’s 0.05% better than the next.

Nokia was back. The brand received a surprising amount of attention for re-releasing its ‘legendary’ 3310. But as the wonderful Benedict Evans of A16Z commented in passing ‘it really does says something when the one phone to get people excited is a rehash of a 15yr old handset.’

Much like last year, VR was very evident with long queues for some of the larger fairground rides, sorry, interactive demonstrations. Visa was actively promoting their innovation ecosystem which included one demonstration of how commerce might look in a virtual world. In this use case you could order food from the comfort of your sofa with only the movement of your eyes. What a wonderful future to look forward to.

The diversification of MWC is accelerating with new categories appearing in this year’s exhibition catalogue like BioTech, Bitcoin, Food Nutrition, Health wellbeing and Space Technology. It’s anyone guess what will be added next year.

As with every year some of the more interesting content and events were away from the main venue, see 4YFN and 360Live.

It wasn’t so long ago when MWC felt like it was on the wane. Telcos were feeling the pain after decades of naval gazing, budgets were being slashed, a wave of consolidation swept across the industry as vendors in the West tried in vain to thwart the unstoppable rise of their Asian competitors. But the GSMAs focus on new products and services that all rely on this core infrastructure was a master stroke that will no doubt keep the MWC gravy train chugging along for many years to come.

About the author: Ben Markland is a Director & Co-founder of 360Leaders. Ben has spent 19 years building technology companies around the world. He joined the Executive Search Industry in 1997, quickly rising through the ranks of an AIM-listed firm to become the youngest consultant in its history. In 2000, Ben found his own company, Spectrum EHCS, which proved very successful and was singled out as a new breed of boutique head hunter. Ben joined 360Leaders in 2007 and the company board in 2012.

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