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Mobile World Congress: 5G, folding phones, Huawei politics

Huawei at Mobile World Congress 2019All over Barcelona banners advertise the city’s 2019 Mobile World Congress event. The slogan is “intelligent connectivity”. The phrase is about generic as things can be in this business. What is it supposed to mean?

There are answers in the eight giant exhibition halls and the numerous conference theatres that dot the event’s site. Everywhere you look, you’ll see the term 5G. Then the penny drops, fifth generation mobile phone technology is meant to be intelligent connectivity.

Judging by Mobile World Congress, 5G must be at the peak of Gartner’s Hype Cycle. It’s been front and centre for the last three years. Now carriers are building 5G networks and tentatively switching them on. 5G phone hardware is here. It’s all ready to fly except for one thing, practical business applications for 5G are still few and far between.

Huawei everywhere at Mobile World Congress

If it’s hard to avoid 5G hype at MWC. It’s also hard to avoid Huawei. The company’s logo is everywhere. Huawei has the biggest stand in the largest exhibition hall, although the word stand is not the best way to describe a hectare or so of space showing 5G network hardware, end-user kit and even the occasional practical business application.

One user case is a Norwegian salmon farm that uses 5G. Almost all part of its operation would work just as well with 4G or even 3G. However, the fish farmers use 4K television to monitor fish health. They can’t see the lice that attach themselves to salmon on a lower resolution screen and 5G is the only practical way to transmit that much data from the fish pens to the land-based monitoring stations.

Travel for about kilometre on the showground travelator and you’ll get from Huawei’s carrier exhibit to the company’s consumer device stand. There you can see the Mate X, a folding phone handset. It looks like any other 2019 Android handset until you open it out. Then it turns into an iPad-like tablet.

Tablet or phone?

It’s not entirely clear if the Huawei Mate X is a phone that can double as a tablet, or if it is a tablet you can fold up and put in your pocket. Either way, it feels a little like magic when you first get your hands on one. Also magic is that no-one seems to want to use the awful term phablet to describe the device.

The likely NZ price will be the thick end of $4,000 which seems a lot, but for a lot of people this is going to be a valuable hardworking device. Like every other phone is has cameras and all the smartphone trimmings, unlike every other phone it does 5G straight out of the box.

Other phone makers also showed folding devices. Huawei appears to have the edge over Samsung and Alcatel who both displayed folding tablet-phones.

Politics

Huawei’s Mate X was the most talked about phone at Mobile World Congress. The company was also seen in a less flattering limelight. Huawei has been locked out of some markets and is on the receiving end of negative attention from the US government.

The fear is that Huawei is either already using its network hardware to pass secrets to the Chinese government or that it will soon start doing so.

Huawei fought this on two fronts at Barcelona. On the positive front it showcased its products and services aiming to woo telecoms executives with its superior, in some cases outstanding products.

Billion dollar charm offensive

The charm offensive was huge. Off the record I was told Huawei spent getting on for a billion dollars on MWC. Thousands of employees attend. Plane loads of journalists, including myself, were flown in from around the world to see the company in its best light.

Huawei appears to have fed a large proportion of the 100,000 or so people who turned up to MWC. The catering budget must run into many millions.

There was a day zero event. In effect, a mini-conference held the day before MWC was officially open. Huawei used MWC to show the world it is the leader in the technology needed to make 5G happen.

Huawei’s second front was more aggressive. On the second formal day at MWC, Huawei chairman Guo Ping hit back at US claims in a measured, but angry keynote speech. In effect he said what Huawei officials have been telling journalists for months; that the company doesn’t do bad things and that there are no backdoors in network kit.

Nothing yet

Well, he would say that even if Huawei was up to its eyeballs in espionage. But no-one has any evidence of anything untoward to date. While that doesn’t mean nothing is going on, given the scrutiny the company is under, you might expect a whiff of evidence by now.

Those of us who aren’t in Huawei’s inner circle or who work at a high level in intelligence can never know for certain. MWC 2019 debated the questions, it didn’t resolve them.

In hindsight we should probably have guessed that a telecommunications industry event would find itself on the geopolitical front line. From a journalist’s point of view, it’s definitely more interesting that writing about a phone maker putting an extra camera on their back of their hardware.

Disclosure: While Huawei flew me to Barcelona and was a gracious host, the company was MWC’s biggest story by a long shot. I’d have written the same as above if I had paid my own way.

Published by Bill Bennett

Not actually a geek, more a chronicler of geekdom. Still mainly a journalist, sometimes a blogger.

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