Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is the telecommunications industry’s annual showcase.
As the name says, the emphasis is on mobile. It’s all about communications technology you can carry.
Apple wasn’t there, but every other company that makes phones or phone equipment was there.
This makes it an ideal place to get a taste of where telecommunications is heading.
Virtual reality everywhere in sight
The most visible technology this year was virtual reality.
If the device makers get their way, we’ll all be using more virtual reality. The devices were everywhere you looked.
At the moment virtual technology devices are no more than expensive toys. There’s little worthwhile virtual reality content. The technology may take off, but don’t hold your breath.
Phone innovation stalls
One possible reason for the interest in VR products is that phone makers have reached the end of the line with conventional devices.
This year’s crop of phones from the big brands offered little that is new or revolutionary.
Screens were not bigger. They did not offer higher resolution. Most phones are still flat touch screen glass slabs with metal cases. They all look the same.
In almost every case, the changes for 2016 were incremental with phone makers refining their wares.
Samsung, the world’s largest phone maker, used Mobile World Congress to launch the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge models. Launch razzmatazz aside, there’s something tired and stale about the Galaxy S range this time around. The phones offer little that’s new or exciting.
That doesn’t mean existing Samsung users won’t want to upgrade.
Samsung fixes shortcoming
In Barcelona Samsung showed new models that were fixes correcting flaws in the lacklustre S6 models.
Samsung showed Galaxy S7 phones with more rounded bodies. There are no sharp corners. This makes them more comfortable in the hand.
Samsung has restored the microSD slot — something many Galaxy fans missed in the S6.
Samsung says the new phones have bigger batteries than the S6 models. They need to be bigger, a busy S6 user might struggle to get past lunch time on a single charge.
None of this is groundbreaking.
There was no new phone buzz at the Samsung pavilion. The new models were on show behind glass cases. Visitors appeared more interested in Samsung’s virtual reality products than in the phones.
LG tries a different approach
The lethargy around Samsung contrasted with the hands-on excitement at LG’s stand. Demonstrators showed how the modular G5 can change features by snapping-in new capabilities.
You can add a better camera, hi-fi sound or even something resembling a tiny robot.
A modular phone is a clever idea, but in its current form it feels like novelty for novelty’s sake. Few people will buy this.
Even so, this was the most radical phone innovation on show at MWC. It could put life back into LG which has struggled to make money from phones.
Sony: A new hope
Sony showed mid-range Xperia X and XA models. The phones on the stand show a possible new direction.
Xperia X and XA phones have less heroic specifications than the flagship Xperia models with emphasis on camera and battery life.
Sony says the phones will cost less than rival models although how that works in New Zealand isn’t clear. They’ll need to come in at less than NZ$800 to make an impact.
The market hasn’t been kind to Sony. The company loses money and there’s no obvious sign than will stop. Which is a pity because the Sony Xperia phones are a good choice for less geeky users.
HTC chooses VR
HTC’s phone losses are so bad, it is unlikely we’ll see much more from this once-great brand. There were new midrange phones from HTC, but the emphasis was on the Vive virtual reality headset.
You couldn’t get close to the HTC stand for the crowds queuing to try the Vive. HTC sent a press release earlier this week saying Vive is available for pre-sale, whatever that means.
You’ll need deep pockets. HTC says it will cost US$950 in New Zealand. That includes GST but doesn’t include shipping — a strange way of telling us the price. At a guess that means you’ll need to pay around NZ$1500.
Bill Bennett travelled to Mobile World Congress as Huawei’s guest.