Five observations about MWC 2017

This year’s Mobile World Congress was a rather strange affair. For in spite of the showcasing of transformative technologies like 5G and the Internet of Things, it was actually a feature phone from a trusted old brand that stole the show.

1. Nokia takes us back to the future

The biggest queues at the Fira this year were to grab a quick game of Snake on the revamped Nokia 3310. Younger delegates might have wondered what the fuss was about, but for misty eye 30-somethings the return of the handset that was the industry standard was a pivotal moment.

Perhaps the online column inches the phone generated might encourage other manufacturers to resurrect some of their older models. Might 2017 be remembered as the year that the Motorola Razr or maybe even the Danger Hiptop come back for an encore?

That the Nokia 3310 eclipsed the launch of several other important new handsets from the likes of Huawei and LG at MWC 2017 actually says a great deal about the state of the smartphone market. As Samuel Gibbs states in this excellent piece in The Guardian we have started to become a little jaded by them. Even cheaper models pretty much do all that we require from them, from accessing the internet through to streaming music and video. There is also very little in the way of innovation. The last significant hardware breakthrough was the rise of the Phablet pioneered by Samsung and its Galaxy Note and that debuted at IFA back in 2011.

So will the Hackney hipsters be touring the Nokia 3310 in a suitably ironic way? Or will become the de facto phone for festival goers fed up with mising their favourite acts which searching for smartphone charging points? We will know soon enough.

2. 5G is coming but no one knows when

One of the most impressive displays at MWC 2017 was from Nokia, which showed a remote control car powered by both 4G and 5G. The 4G version spluttered into life, sped away for a metre or so and then crashed. However the 5G cars ran smoothly, were easy to control and could attain reasonably quick speeds. Bearing in mind that autonomous cars will probably controlled by a variant of 5G this is rather comforting news…

As The Verge reported on 5G They cite download speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (that would be 1,000 times faster than the current US 4G average); latency of less than a millisecond; and support for a million connected devices per square kilometer. These specs won’t just let you download a full movie on your phone in seconds, but will also enable all sorts of services that need reliable, high-bandwidth data to work — everything from remote-control surgical robots to live-streaming VR footage.”

However the truth about 5G is that no one really knows what exactly it means. From ZTE’s almost 5G Gigabit phones through to Intel’s smart lamp posts there was real buzz about the technology at the show. Yet most countries have done nothing so far to allocate the bandwidth required to drive 5G, let alone think about the implications it might have for both networks and society in general. 5G is coming and it will be transformative, but it is not happening any time soon.

3. You will be hearing a lot about Graphene in the future

Tucked away in the remotest corner of the smallest hall at MWC 2017 was an area devoted to a revolutionary material which could have a profound impact on our lives in the next few years. Graphene is a thin, super strong material which was discovered by researchers at the University of Manchester a decade or so ago. Since then, scientists all over the globe have begun the race to harness the material to develop real-world products. At MWC 2017 the graphene area showcased some of these ideas, several of which have been funded by an EU investment fund of an astonishing €1bn.

For now a 3D-printed Graphene shoe took centre stage, but in the future mobile phone batteries with much longer lives could be made from Graphene. Then mobile phones from the substance could follow, and we could eventually see it used to create lightweight cars, planes and anything else that needs to be both tough and light.

4. Drones and robots are taking over

Last year the buzz at MWC was definitely around Virtual Reality. This time, the emphasis seems have shifted to robots and drones. In some halls you couldn’t go more than a few stands without having to face some kind of artificial intelligence-driven product whether it be a robot or an autonomous car. Highlights for me included Korea Telecom’s robot drummer and Softbank’s human-like robot Pepper which is designed to be used in store to greet customers and help them.

As for drones, well if you want an alternative career option how about being a drone pilot? There’s even a marketplace to help you get gigs.

5. MWC is a great show for startups

One of the most interesting parts of MWC 2017 was the growth of the 4YFN, which is essentially a show within show. It is basically a startup zone, though many of the companies were actually post-investment looking for customers rather investors. There were so many innovative and interesting ideas on display from Fanonfire, a startup which offers access to a city’s nightlife, through to Unnax, a company which seeks to help make it simpler for companies to send money across territories.

It is also interesting to note how Barcelona is emerging as real contender as one of Europe’s key startup hubs. There were a large number of Catalan companies at the exhibition, many of which were run by non-Spaniards. Clearly the investment opportunities, emerging tech and investment infrastructure – and maybe the too the weather – is making the city a great place to develop a business.

Five observations about MWC 2017
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