Barcelona hosted the biggest mobile tech show on the planet this week.
Tech editor Adrian Weckler has been immersed in the sector’s latest phones, mobile gadgets and new technology. Here he reveals why 5G really will be the next big thing (as Samsung and VR struggle); why, as phone cameras take giant leaps, Nokia’s classic €50 phone was a surprise hit; and while Irish delegates are up, the number of women most definitely isn’t
1. A lot more is going to depend on 5G than we think.
One of the big themes at Mobile World Congress was 5G. But unlike 3G or 4G, 5G is about way more than mobile phone speeds or internet access from handsets.
It’s starting to become clear that almost everything we do in a few years may depend on solid, unbroken access to a mobile network.
Self-driving cars, for instance, will probably only work if they have guaranteed, unfettered connections to a wider network – and 4G doesn’t cut it.
Right now, you can watch a video in your car or get sat nav access.
But for precision timing, the latency has to be down to a few milliseconds, something that isn’t possible over current networks. At Mobile World Congress, several of the car companies were there, making this point, with the two biggest display areas in the whole event taken up by Ericsson and Huawei, which are vying to be the main 5G network providers around the world.
2. The hype around virtual reality has abated.
The last two years were dominated by the promise of a new era in virtual reality. But in 2017, there is a lot less being said about it at the main tech shows.
“There just aren’t that many people buying them,” one senior Google executive told me at Mobile World Conference.
As a result, generic mobile and tech companies aren’t showcasing virtual reality modules as future add-ons to whatever service they sell in the same way they might have last year.
There is still massive investment going into the genre, mainly because of bets placed by Facebook (which owns Oculus), Sony, HTC and – to a lesser extent – Google. But virtual reality is starting to be talked about more in niche terms than ubiquitous, mass-market parlance.
3. Phone cameras are taking the next step up.
Given the laws of physics, can cameras in phones get any better? Actually, yes. We saw some significant upgrades at Mobile World Congress to the lenses sitting in your pocket. Sony and Huawei, in particular, showcased beefed-up cameraphone tech that will result in significantly better photos and videos turning up on our Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat feeds.
Sony’s new Xperia XZ Premium, for example, has an unprecedented ability to shoot very slow motion video in high definition.
Huawei, meanwhile, has upped its Leica lenses to give pretty jaw-dropping portrait photo ability.
They weren’t the only phone companies improving on their camera tech. Oppo may not be a widely known phone outfit in Ireland, but it’s now one of the biggest handset brands in China.
It also debuted a dual-lens cameraphone at Mobile World Congress.
Undoubtedly, Apple and Samsung will respond with the S8, due out shortly, and the iPhone 8, expected in September.
But the bottom line is that the gap between cameraphones and €1,000-plus standalone cameras will continue to narrow this year.
To be clear, the two will never be equal: camera sensors and standalone lenses will always have a significant edge over necessarily small phone sensors and flat micro-lenses. But the scale of the superiority that once existed continues to decline.
4. People are still looking for quirky things.
The hit of Mobile World Congress came from an unlikely source: Nokia. Its revived classic 3310 model caught the imagination of the public, taking experts and analysts by surprise.
For €50, the dinky little phone comes with a two-inch colour screen, basic camera and an even more basic web browser. Its battery will last a month on standby and it has a new version of ‘Snake’, said to be the most-played video game of all time.
But is it a gimmick or a product with real legs? Are people really about to give up their powerful smartphones for a gadget that would have been fairly basic even ten years ago?
Analysts say that it will appeal to a mixture of older people, festival-goers, travellers and those who want to reduce their addiction to social media all throughout the day.
There are even suggestions that people sensitive to their data privacy might use the pared-down phone when entering the US, to limit border guards’ exploration of their social information when asked for such data at customs.
5. Samsung continues to have a terrible time of it.
Can things get much worse for Samsung? In the middle of Mobile World Congress, news came through that its chief executive is to be investigated for corruption.
Not that things were going well for the company at the event before that bombshell dropped. Its keynote presentation, which is usually an anchor event at Mobile World Congress, was a decidedly awkward affair with more hand-wringing from the stage over its Note 7 overheating phone fiasco. It didn’t even have any significant product to launch, with no Galaxy S8 model ready yet.
That left it with nothing more than an Android tablet and two touchscreen Windows laptops as its main pitch to the thousands gathered and watching. In previous years, Samsung has utterly dominated Mobile World Congress, just as it has dominated the mobile industry. So far, 2017 is proving to be as challenging as the end of 2016.
6. The Irish presence is getting bigger and bigger.
A couple of years ago, Irish influence at Mobile World Congress was largely restricted to a state-subsidised stand with 14 plucky little companies selected to present on the big stage. Now, some Irish companies are starting to come into their own as legitimate, large-scale competition to big international players. Dublin-based telecoms software firm Openet had arguably the biggest stand of any of the Irish firms on hand, a very large corner edifice with public and private spaces within. Asavie, a Dublin-based ‘internet of things’ firm, also has a sizeable stand at the event and announced a pretty significant deal.
In all, there were well over 30 Irish companies officially on display, with dozens (perhaps hundreds) more on location for business meetings and pitches.
7. The telecoms industry is still run by middle-aged men in suits.
Think web-tech companies have a gender balance problem? A walk around Mobile World Congress shows you an industry that makes the digital tech business look like a model of progressive gender-balance.
Hardly any keynote speeches were by women and, from what I saw walking around the place for two days, very few of the senior executives on the floor were women.
In relative terms, Ireland actually does reasonably well on this score. Ericsson’s most senior Irish executive at the event was Zelia Madigan, country manager for the company which has over 1,000 people working between Athlone and Dublin. At home, Irish telcos have pretty visible female senior executives too, including Vodafone’s Irish boss Anne O’Leary and Eir’s head of networks, Carolann Lennon.
However, not a single one of the 14 up-and-coming companies showcased at by Enterprise Ireland on the state agency’s subsidised stand at Mobile World Congress was led by a woman.
This probably wasn’t for want of looking on EI’s part. But telecoms still appears to be a very, very male-dominated business.