MWC 2017: Top 5 themes

20 FEB 2017

Mobile World Congress (MWC) is back for its 12th year in Barcelona. This hugely significant event has tracked some of the most exciting and innovative changes in the mobile industry over the years. While last year’s theme was Mobile is Everything, reflecting the growing influence of mobile on other industries and areas of our lives, the focus this year is on mobile as The Next Element. As Anne Morris reports, MWC 2017 is expected to reflect how elemental mobile technology has become in our everyday lives.

Although there’s still much innovation happening within the network, mobility is no longer the innovation itself, according to Emma Mohr-McClune, service director at GlobalData.

“These days, it’s almost impossible to find a carrier or over-the-top innovation that isn’t de facto, intrinsically mobile, or even ‘mobile first’ and increasingly we see this focus from all players within the ecosystem,” she said. “Enterprises and consumers take (mobility) for granted. That’s why I’m expecting fewer 5G technology discussions this year, and more emphasis on the intersect of mobility with new forms of customer experiences and communications engagements, not all of them human.”

Indeed, the “mobility is elemental” theme of this year’s MWC reflects the degree to which mobile has become a fundamental part of our lives. With this in mind, what can you expect to see at the Fira Gran Via this year? To help you plan your week, we have compiled some views from industry experts on what they expect or hope to see at the show.

Devices
New launches of smartphones, phablets, tablets and now wearable devices have traditionally been a dominant theme at MWC, and even as the focus of the event broadens this continues to be the case, according to Annette Zimmermann, research director at Gartner.

“Of course there will be new flagship phones from the vendors, but one that stands out is the new Nokia smartphone to be announced on Sunday evening,” said Zimmermann.

The expected launch by licensee HMD Global also marks the return of the famous Nokia brand to the smartphone market, but HMD will be under pressure to impress a knowledgeable — and cynical — audience at the event.

“They will have to come up with something unique and announce markets outside China if they want to be a serious player again,” added Zimmermann.

Nokia and HMD aside, numerous new devices launches are also expected at MWC. And Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, believes it will be tough to stand out from the crowd in the “current sea of sameness” that characterises Android smartphones.

“The rumour mill is indicating that Samsung won’t be launching the Galaxy S8, so this leaves an opportunity for another phone manufacturer to make a splash. A key trend we expect in flagship devices will be taking the screen right to the edge of the device — something we’ve seen already from Sharp and more recently Xiaomi with the Mi Mix phone,” he noted.

As things stand, a number of vendors have already announced “unveiling events” at MWC. BlackBerry’s licensing partner TCL, clearly keen to get ahead of the pack, plans to hold its event on Saturday. Huawei, LG, Motorola, and Samsung have all sent out invitations for Sunday (26 February), and Chinese smartphone manufacturer Gionee and Sony both plan to hold their events on Monday (27 February).

Although the Samsung Galaxy S8 is unlikely to materialise, rumours suggest that the South Korean vendor could unveil a tablet — the Galaxy Tab S, as well as a teaser video for the S8. At the same time, the company could also face more scrutiny over what went wrong with the Note 7 (pictured).

Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI is expected to be a dominant theme at MWC, according to Jim Bailey, senior managing director at Accenture Mobility, part of Accenture Digital, although a number of analysts are already counselling caution on what should actually be labelled “AI” at this stage.

“I have no doubt that AI will underpin many of the most exciting products and solutions on show at MWC this year, and dozens of conversations will take place about what it can do for businesses across industries,” said Bailey. “But we need to differentiate the hype from the reality. Otherwise, we risk the real value of emerging technologies being underestimated, resulting in a slowdown of investment and innovation.”

Avi Greengart, research director at GlobalData, also said that AI “will be a ubiquitous buzzword. Nearly anything will be labelled ‘AI’: programmatic battery life optimisation, tooltips and, of course, any type of natural language interaction with services, whether spoken or text-based, will all be labelled ‘AI’”.

Although there is a risk that natural language interaction with services may be “prematurely labelled ‘AI’,” according to Peter Briggs, senior analyst at GlobalData, Wood from CCS Insight believes that the arrival of natural speech interfaces is also set to make voice a hot topic again after years of it being an almost a forgotten element of communications technology.

Amazon’s Alexa, of course, is one of the fastest growing technology platforms at the moment, and Wood believes plenty more devices will be supporting it.

“However, don’t be surprised to see Google making a big push with its rival solution, said Wood. “You can be sure that there will be a number of announcements of devices using Google’s Assistant, particularly after Huawei said it will be supporting Alexa on the Mate 9. Google will want to make sure other Android phone makers throw their weight behind its platform rather than Amazon’s Alexa.

Gartner’s Zimmermann also said that the theme of integrating intelligent systems like Alexa into hardware such as smart watches and smartphones would continue at MWC. “And apart from Alexa, there are other intelligent systems that will show their influence. Natural language processing is one thing, but there are other systems such as face and emotion recognition that is used in different scenarios such as in the connected home or via cameras in the car,” she commented.

IoT
It’s difficult not to include the all-pervasive Internet of Things (IoT) in an MWC “top 5”. Martin Garner, SVP at CCS Insight, expects the focus to shift from new technology to service implementation, aided by the “accelerating alignment with key verticals”.

According to Bailey from Accenture Mobility, for those organisations undertaking IoT projects beyond small-scale pilots, this will be the year that they begin to define their competitive advantage. “Their plans for IoT projects and the results of completed pilots will be a popular topic of conversation behind closed doors at MWC, as such experience is invaluable to fast followers and ecosystem partners,” he said.

For those that are less advanced in their IoT implementations, Bailey said MWC will be an opportunity “to look around for inspiration, with strong momentum continuing to build at pace. Businesses will look to identify how new connections can transform their operations and business models, and we will see more examples of how IoT is making a difference than ever before”.

As in 2016, narrow band IoT (NB-IoT) is also expected to be high on the agenda as operators prepare to bring commercial networks to market.

“We expect this to be a very prominent theme as 3GPP-based solutions (Cat-M and Cat-NB1) finally start to build momentum and rival proprietary alternatives such as Sigfox and LoRa,” said Geoff Blaber, VP research, Americas, at CCS Insight.“This will be evident in module, commercial deployment and service announcements. However, until we begin to see specific verticals start to scale, fragmented proprietary approaches are likely to coexist alongside 3GPP-based NB-IoT,”

5G
Inevitably, 5G will be a leading theme this year with a shift in emphasis towards pre-commercial launches in the U.S. for fixed-wireless broadband services. Verizon has already announced some level of commercial deployment for next-generation wireless in 2017,

Kester Mann, principal analyst at CCS Insight, said possible market fragmentation will also be a key topic, “particularly in relation to use of 28GHz spectrum, a band challenging for Europe due to use by the satellite industry. Indeed, lofty ambitions in other regions may see Europe’s role in 5G come under new scrutiny despite commendable recent ambition from the European Commission”.

In tandem with 5G, CCS Insight also expects to see a significant focus on LTE Advanced Pro with a host of carriers touting ‘Gigabit LTE’ network upgrades.

“This is an important step in preparation for 5G and builds on Qualcomm’s X16 modem and Snapdragon 835 chipset announcements with more commercial products likely to be announced in Barcelona. We expect European and Asian operators to follow the lead of U.S. counterparts as AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile have all now made commitments to Gigabit LTE deployments,” added Blaber.

Regulation
As with network evolutions, it’s also somewhat inevitable that regulation will feature in operator keynote presentations at MWC. Indeed, 2017 is also the year when a key piece of European Union legislation should come into force: the abolition of roaming charges within EU member states.

Mann believes repetitive calls in recent years for a more favourable regulatory regime may be replaced by something new this year.

“The networks may have wind in their sails following indication from authorities that third-party communications providers such as Skype and WhatsApp could be subject to heightened regulation. Net neutrality will also be a major source of debate, due to recent controversial zero-rating initiatives by U.S. carriers and the likely lighter-touch approach taken by the Trump administration,” Mann said.

And finally
Of course many other themes will be hot topics at the show, including the evolution of Wi-Fi, the changing nature of mobile applications, and the ongoing focus on smart everything. However, as pointed out by Peter Jarich, vice president at GlobalData, “what’s always interesting is the stuff we didn’t see coming”.