In a word: “telecommunications.” Network and entrepreneurship have long played a key role in Barcelona’s major mobile show, but more than ever such topics will play an outrageous role at the event. The consumer element seems to be increasingly taking a back seat during the event, which will start in earnest next Monday.
The truth is that Mobile World Congress was never a consumer tech show per se, but the participation of several smartphone makers turned it into a convenient launch pad. CES (held in January) is where every other category, from smart home and wearables to automotive and robotics, gets its time to shine, while MWC happily adopted the monitor from the major smartphone show.
Of course, a lot has changed since 2019, the last time businessroundups.org attended the show in person – both for the industry and for the world. It seems like a million years ago when we all waited with bated breath for the GSMA to finally pull the plug on the 2020 show. That year’s CES had managed to get just under the wire (we can go on and on about the wisdom of that particular decision). However, as the weeks progressed, it became increasingly clear that late February/early March was not an ideal time to hold an in-person international tech event.
The show will return in 2021, albeit pushed back by four months from its usual time. We weren’t there – and not many people for that matter. The show apparently didn’t risk much of meeting the attendance limit enforced by the organization. The show provided a semblance of normalcy in 2022, when 60,000 showed up, according to the GSMA (businessroundups.org, again, not among them). Not a bad result to be honest, even if it was (understandably) significantly lower than the 109,000 in 2019.
As I’m often inclined to point out, the smartphone industry’s problems predated the pandemic. The arrival of 5G had put some wind in its sails, but broader trends show that people just aren’t buying smartphones like they used to. There were many factors, including higher prices for premium products, fewer breakthrough innovations, and the fact that cell phones are just better now, slowing down the standard upgrade cycle from two to three years.
The pandemic, of course, has exacerbated everything. Suddenly many people were unemployed or without money and did not have the means to spend money on non-essentials. For a while, people stopped leaving the house as much and spending shifted to things like PCs and tablets. In many markets, the momentum of 5G has slowed. Ongoing supply chain issues have also led to bottlenecks. And then, of course, there is inflation.
By the end of last year, it was hard to shake the feeling that most consumer electronics companies had become much more cautious about their release pace. Probably not a bad thing, in terms of the planet, but probably more than a little troubling for shareholders. We’re also currently sitting around waiting to see how mass layoffs at tech companies will affect the category, looking ahead.
Another major trend that predates the pandemic is the shift away from using major exchanges to launch tentpole products. Almost every major company started opting for its own events. Why share a spotlight when you can create your own? The shift to virtual product launches during the pandemic further widened the gap. Honestly, even for hardware devices, the model is still fine for most.
This year the GSMA expects 75,000 visitors. That is a modest figure, compared to the halcyon days, but still there are many people who will linger in Fira convention center in 2023. There are big names on the exhibitor list, including Samsung, Oppo/OnePlus, Huawei and Xiaomi. Some, including Samsung and OnePlus, just now new flagships released so don’t expect much fireworks there. While the latter has already teased a “draft” device, results will vary depending on whether that meets the definition of “news”.
Similarly, Qualcomm made its standard move to announce the new flagship Snapdragon chip at its conference in Hawaii last year. We’re probably still months away from the six-month refresh, though the company always seems to have some chip or other up its sleeve. However, I do expect news from some of the top Chinese manufacturers, including the aforementioned Xiaomi, ZTE and Huawei budget offshoot Honor.
Other notable exhibitors include Nokia IP licensor HMD and HTC, which has effectively moved all of its eggs to the Vive VR basket. VR/AR/MR/XR is of course an interesting one. Probably not a big presence outside of HTC, but everyone is seemingly contractually obligated to do something in space today. That said, Meta/Facebook and Sony will not be attending this year’s show. However, Lenovo will. The company usually gives a lot of devices at the shows it attends, and its subsidiary, Motorola, also seems to have something new up its sleeve.
Looking at the speakers agenda, climate impact will (fortunately) be a topic. A lot of people still seem to talk about the metaverse, for what that’s worth. The GSMA has also put a lot of resources into sports for some reason, while Microsoft is preparing some talks about the cloud. AI doesn’t monopolize as much stage time as you might expect, and most of the smart home talk revolves around the introduction of Matter.
There is also a panel of speakers from Samsung, ZTE and the European Space Agency titled “Ready to talk 6G?” It’s a question I honestly don’t know the answer to.
For me personally, it will be a great setting to sit down with some of the top executives of these companies and ask some tough questions about where the hell the industry is headed.