Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress is the telecommunications industry’s annual showcase and conference.
As the name says, the emphasis is on mobile technology. That’s where you’ll find today’s action. Everyone from consumers to small businesses to corporations depends on devices you can carry.
Apple wasn’t at MWC 2016, but every other technology company worth talking about was at the show. This makes it an ideal place to get a taste of where technology is heading.
If the device makers get their way, we’ll all be using more virtual reality. The devices were everywhere. At the moment they are no more than expensive toys and there’s little worthwhile VR content. The technology may take off, but don’t hold your breath.
Phone innovation stalls
One possible reason for the VR product surge 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.
In almost every case, the changes were incremental with phone makers refining their wares.
Samsung, the world’s largest phone maker, used MWC to launch the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge models. Launch razzmatazz aside, there’s something tired and stale about the Galaxy S range. The phones offer little that’s new or exciting.
That doesn’t mean existing Samsung users won’t want to upgrade.
Samsung fixes shortcoming
From what I saw in Barcelona the new models were fixes correcting flaws in the lacklustre S6 models. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 phones have more rounded bodies. There are no sharp corners making 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 when I visited. The new models were only on show behind glass cases. Visitors appeared more interested in Samsung’s virtual reality products than in the phones.
While you can’t write Samsung off, it is clear we have gone past peak Galaxy.
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.
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. Show visitors seemed interested in LG’s modular approach.
For me the curious aspect of this is that the underlying G5 is LG’s best every phone. I only had hands on for second, but I could get a lot more excited about owning the G5 than the Galaxy S7.
Sony: A new hope
Sony showed mid-range Xperia X and XA models. The phones I saw 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. I suspect many Samsung Galaxy customers would have a better experience with a Sony phone.
HTC chooses VR
HTC’s phone losses are so bad I doubt 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.
There were new phones from ZTE and Xiaomi at MWC. I ignored them as they are unlikely to make it to New Zealand, at least not through official channels.
Bill Bennett travelled to Mobile World Congress as Huawei’s guest.