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18 March 2013

The future of the Mobile World Congress

Filed under: Accenture, Cambridge, Connectivity, innovation, Internet of Things, M2M, MWC — David Wood @ 3:37 am

How should the Mobile World Congress evolve? What does the future hold for this event?

MWC logoMWC (the Mobile World Congress) currently has good claims to be the world’s leading show for the mobile industry. From 25-28 February, 72 thousand attendees from over 200 countries made their way around eight huge halls where over 1,700 companies were showcasing their products or services. The Barcelona exhibition halls were heaving and jostling.

Tony Poulos, Market Strategist for TM Forum, caught much of the mood of the event in his review article, “Billions in big business as Barcelona beats blues”. Here’s an excerpt:

In one place for four days each year you can see, meet and hear almost every key player in the GSM mobile world. And there lies its secret. The glitz, the ritzy exhibits, the partially clad promo girls, the gimmicks, the giveaways are all inconsequential when you get down to the business of doing business. No longer do people turn up at events like MWC just to attend the conference sessions, walk the stands or attend the parties, they all come here to network in person and do business.

For suppliers, all their customers and prospects are in one place for one week. No need to send sales teams around the globe to meet with them, they come to you. And not just the managers and directors, there are more telco C-levels in Barcelona for MWC than are left behind in the office. For suppliers and operators alike, if you are not seen at MWC you are either out of business or out of a job.

Forget virtual social networking, this is good old-fashioned, physical networking at its best. Most meetings are arranged ahead of time and stands are changing slowly from gaudy temples pulling in passers-by to sophisticated business environments complete with comfortable meeting rooms, lounges, bars, espresso machines and delicacies including Swiss chocolates, Portuguese egg tarts, French pastries and wines from every corner of the globe…

But at least some of the 72,000 MWC attendees found the experience underwhelming. Kevin Coleman, CEO of Alliantus, offered a damning assessment at the end of the show:

I am wondering if I am the boy who shouts – “but the emperor is wearing no clothes” – or the masked magician about to reveal the secrets of the magic trick.

Here it is. “Most of you at Mobile World Congress have wasted your money.”

Yes, I have just returned from the MWC where I have seen this insanity with my own eyes…

That’s quite a discrepancy in opinion. Billions in business, or Insanity?

Or to rephrase the question in terms suggested by my Accenture colleague Rhian Pamphilon, Fiesta or Siesta?

To explore that question, Accenture sponsored a Cambridge Wireless event on Tuesday last week at the Møller Centre at Churchill College in Cambridge. The idea was to bring together a panel of mobile industry experts who would be prepared to share forthright but informed opinions on the highlights and lowlights of this year’s MWC.

Panellists

The event was entitled “Mobile World Congress: Fiesta or Siesta?!”. The panellists who kindly agreed to take part were:

  • Paul Ceely, Head of Network Strategy at EE
  • Raj Gawera, VP Marketing at Samsung Cambridge Mobile Solutions
  • Dr Tony Milbourn, VP Strategy at u-blox AG
  • Geoff Stead, Senior Director, Mobile Learning at Qualcomm
  • Professor William Webb, CTO at Neul
  • Dr. Richard Windsor, Founder of Radio Free Mobile.

The meeting was structured around three questions:

  1. The announcements at MWC that people judged to be the most significant – the news stories with the greatest implications
  2. The announcements at MWC that people judged to be the most underwhelming – the news stories with the least real content
  3. The announcements people might have expected at MWC but which failed to materialise – speaking volumes by their silence.

In short, what were the candidates for what we termed the Fiesta, the Siesta, and the Niesta of the event? Which trends should be picked out as the most exciting, the most snooze-worthy, and as sleeping giants liable to burst forth into new spurts of activity? And along the way, what future could we discern, not just for individual mobile trends, but for the MWC event itself?

I had the pleasure to chair the discussion. All panellists were speaking on their own behalf, rather than necessarily representing the corporate viewpoints of their companies. That helped to encourage a candid exchange of views. The meeting also found time to hear suggestions from the audience – which numbered around 100 members of the extended Cambridge Wireless community. Finally, there was a lively networking period, in which many of the audience good-humouredly button-holed me with additional views.

We were far from reaching any unanimous conclusion. Items that were picked as “Fiesta” by one panellist sometimes featured instead on the “Siesta” list of another. But I list below some key perceptions that commanded reasonable assent on the evening.

Machine to machine, connected devices, and wearable computers

MWC showed a lot of promise for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and for connected devices (devices that contain communications functionality but which are not phones). But more remains to be done, for this promise to reach its potential.

The GSMA Connected City gathered together a large number of individual demos, but the demos were mainly separated from each other, without there being a clear overall architecture incorporating them all.

Connected car was perhaps the field showing the greatest progress, but even there, practical questions remain – for example, should the car rely on its own connectivity, or instead rely on connectivity of smartphones brought into the car?

For MWC to retain its relevance, it needs to bring M2M and connected devices further to the forefront.

Quite likely, wearable computers will be showing greater prominence by this time next year – whether via head-mounted displays (such as Google Glass) or via the smart watches allegedly under development at several leading companies.

NFC – Near Field Communications

No one spoke up with any special excitement about NFC. Words used about it were “boring” and “complicated”.

Handset evolution

The trend towards larger screen sizes was evident. This seems to be driven by the industry as much as by users, since larger screens encourage greater amounts of data usage.

On the other hand, flexible screens, which have long been anticipated, and which might prompt significant innovation in device form factors, showed little presence at the show. This is an area to watch closely.

Perhaps the most innovative device on show was the dual display Yota Phone – with a standard LCD on one side, and an eInk display on the other. As can be seen in this video from Ben Wood of CCS Insight, the eInk display remains active even if the device is switched off or runs out of battery.

Two other devices received special mention:

  • The Nokia Lumia 520, because of its low pricepoint
  • The Lenovo K900, because of what it showed about the capability of Intel’s mobile architecture.

Mobile operating systems

Panellists had dim views on some of the Android devices they saw. Some of these devices showed very little differentiation from each other. Indeed, some “formerly innovative” handset manufacturers seem to have lost their direction altogether.

Views were mixed on the likely impact of Mozilla’s Firefox OS. Is the user experience going to be sufficiently compelling for phones based on this OS to gain significant market traction? It seems too early to tell.

Panellists were more open to the idea that the marketplace could tolerate a considerable number of different mobile operating systems. Gone are  the days when CEOs of network operators would call for the industry to agree on just three platforms. The vast numbers of smartphones expected over the next few years (with one billion likely to be sold in 2013) mean there is room for quite a few second-tier platforms behind the market leaders iOS and Android.

Semiconductor suppliers

If the mobile operating system has two strong leaders, the choice of leading semiconductor supplier is even more limited. One company stands far out from the crowd: Qualcomm. In neither case is the rest of the industry happy with the small number of leading choices available.

For this reason, the recently introduced Tegra 4i processor from Nvidia was seen as potentially highly significant. This incorporates an LTE modem.

Centre of gravity of innovation

In past years, Europe could hold its head high as being at the vanguard of mobile innovation. Recent years have seen more innovation from America, e.g. from Silicon Valley. MWC this year also saw a lot of innovation from the Far East – especially Korea and China. Some audience members suggested they would be more interested in attending an MWC located in the Far East than in Barcelona.

Could the decline in Europe’s position be linked to regulatory framework issues? It had been striking to listen to the pleas during keynotes from CEOs of European network operators, requesting more understanding from governments and regulators. Perhaps some consolidation needs to take place, to address the fragmentation among different network operators. This view was supported by the observation that a lot of the attempted differentiation between different operators – for example, in the vertical industry solutions they offer – fail to achieve any meaningful distinctions.

State of maturity of the industry

In one way, the lack of tremendous excitement at MWC this year indicates the status of the mobile industry as being relatively mature. This is in line with the observation that there were “a lot of suits” at the event. Arguably, the industry is ripe for another round of major disruption – similar to that triggered by Apple’s introduction of the iPhone.

Unsurprisingly, given the setting of the Fiesta or Siesta meeting, many in the audience hold the view that “the next big mobile innovation” could well involve companies with strong footholds in Cambridge.

Moller Centre

Footnote: Everything will be connected

Some of the same themes from the Fiesta or Siesta discussion will doubtless re-appear in “The 5th Future of Wireless International Conference” being run by Cambridge Wireless at the same venue, the Møller Centre, on 1st and 2nd of July this year. Registration is already open. To quote from the event website:

Everything Will Be Connected (Did you really say 50 billion devices?)

Staggeringly, just 30 years since the launch of digital cellular, over 6 billion people now have a mobile phone. Yet we may be on the threshold of a far bigger global shift in humanity’s use and application of wireless and communications. It’s now possible to connect large numbers of physical objects to the Internet and Cloud and give each of them an online digital representation. What really happens when every ‘thing’ is connected to the Cloud and by implication to everything else; when computers know where everything is and can enhance our perception and understanding of our surroundings? How will we interact with this augmented physical world in the future, and what impact will this have on services, infrastructure and devices? More profoundly, how might this change our society, business and personal lives?

In 2013, The Future of Wireless International Conference explores strategic questions about this “Internet of Things”. How transformational could it be and how do we distinguish reality from hyperbole? What about the societal, business and technical challenges involved in moving to a future world where everyday objects are connected and autonomous? What are the benefits and pitfalls – will this be utopia or dystopia? What is the likely impact on your business and what new opportunities will this create? Is your business strategy correct, are you too early, or do you risk being too late? Will this change your business, your life? – almost certainly. Come to hear informed analysis, gain insight, and establish new business connections at this un-missable event.

The agenda for this conference is already well-developed – with a large number of highlights all the way through. I’ll restrict myself to mentioning just two of them. The opening session is described as an executive briefing “What is the Internet Of Things and Why Should I Care?”, and features a keynote “A Vision of the Connected World” by Prof Christopher M. Bishop, FREng, FRSE, Distinguished Scientist, Microsoft Research. The closing session is a debate on the motion “This house believes that mobile network operators will not be winners in the Internet of Things”, between

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