Mobile World Congress is the world’s largest mobile device trade show – a showcase of everything we can expect to see in the market over the next 6-12 months. So why did this year disappoint?
Basically, the problem with these kinds of trade shows is that there are a lot of brands struggling for attention in a physical space – much as they are struggling to compete with Apple and Samsung in the market as a whole. It is perhaps telling that most of the big players (and smaller) decided to announce their products before the show, on their terms, rather than get lost in the noise.
Which is sad, because it removes a large amount of the hype for the event. Much of what I saw exhibited at the event was either pre-announced, or a minor modification of an existing product. That is, faster processors, higher resolution screens, higher megapixel cameras, and a fasincation with making screens as large as possible – or turning them into ‘phablets’.
I’m a firm believer that obnoxiously huge screens (6-inch plus) and high powered quad core processors are a waste of money. Large screens make phones tough to use as… well, phones, while no one has yet made any convincing argument for quad-core phones other than ‘it’s the future’.
Why does this concern me? Because battery life suffers, usability suffers and thus the convenience use case of a smartphone suffers. It is an arms race being driven by those ‘that can’ in a macho race to the top. We saw this happen in desktop PCs too, before it petered out.
The user experience is what matters, and if you can’t make a use case for a technology – spare me. I want my 24 hour battery life back, thanks.
Android Jellybean does not perform any better on a 1.7GHz quad core processor than it does on a dual core 1.5GHz one I’m afraid.
So what were some of the key themes from the show?
4K ‘ULTRA-HD’ VIDEO
Companies such as Qualcomm have started playing around with 4K video (ultra HD 3840×2160), or around double current 1080P video) on smartphones which I think is a bit daft. There are barely any TVs in the world that can play video at this resolution (never mind the data throughput required, three minutes of video clocks in at around 300GB) ‘ what is the point of screening that level of video on a smartphone screen? There is no screen technology that small that can do it – and I doubt the human eye would be able to distinguish it on a 4.5-inch screen anyone. Qualcomm had a few demos running (the new Star Trek movie trailer), and the video also looked muddy, blocky and murky as hell.
By the same token, 7.1 surround sound also seems a bit weird to put on smartphones ‘ which are predominantly listened to with headphones. I mean, it’s great that you can do that ‘ but if I want surround sound, I want a living room to listen to it in, and a 42-inch plasma to watch it on.
These seem more like attempts to sell chipsets to home theatre makers, or to integrate smartphones into the home (i.e. the smartphone outputs the data to your home theatre, acting as a full blown media computer). These are basically tech demos for product applications that may never eventuate. It is more about proving the power of the chipset, which, as we mentioned earlier, is now reaching silly levels.
THE OBSESSION WITH NFC GOES ON….
One the major focuses the GSMA (who organise the event) wanted to push was also the same as last year, NFC. You could even argue the year before that. NFC, as readers may not know, stands for Near Field Communication. That basically means small data transmission over mere centimetres. Why should you care? Why indeed. NFC has the potential to be used for everything from bus and train tickets (simply tap your phone against the terminal), to transferring money, or paying for goods. NFC is already in some credit cards, but the mobile industry has been held back by slow adoption ‘ the banks are also scared to death. Also, Apple still hasn’t put it into its smartphones ‘ which is a fair barometer of the risks involved.
Sony did put on a decent showing of the technology, where it is being used to ‘throw’ applications between devices, such as tapping your smartphone against the TV to mirror your screen on it, or screen movies. It could also mean tapping your phone against your stereo and it starts playing your music. This may be a more realistic use for the technology, or it could just end up being the new bluetooth.
Unfortunately, the problems with NFC were made apparent at the conference ‘ namely, it’s just not convenient enough. The GSMA wants people’s wallets, plane tickets and train tickets all installed on phones, but there are inherent security risks and swipe cards are still about as convenient as most people need for day to day life.
The Connected City demo on show provided a glimpse at the future, but for boffins first and foremost. I think it’s further into the future than most in the industry believe. Yes, it’s nice to be able to start my BMW by tapping my phone on it, or adjust my thermostat, or turn on the oven at home via app ‘ but most of the world’s population aren’t millionaires who own BMWs and live in 21st century high tech mansions.
I also imagine anyone attempting to use NFC at a future Pret a Manger could easily be mistaken for a shoplifter ‘ I mean, grab your sandwich, wave a phone at a bit of plastic near the counter and walk out? Especially if the entire store is crammed and a counter attendant isn’t paying attention? That could easily be faked. The pay off (a slight convenience upgrade) does not balance the risk. I still believe it’s easier to flop a £5 on the counter than it is to open an app, click a few buttons and wave a phone repeatedly in front of a plastic disc (it also has a habit of requiring two-three swipes).
NFC for me, remains a very big ‘to be continued’ ‘ which is sadly a summary of the last 3 years of attempts to introduce this technology.
WHAT MOBILE’S BEST IN SHOW
Best demo stand – Sony
Sony’s proof of concept stand was excellent at explaining where the company is going. Plenty of units, plenty of demos and water pools to dunk phones in. The 4K TVs and stereos were all plentiful to demo the NFC ‘one touch’ capabilities of its Xperia Z phone and tablet – simply tap the device on any unit to either clone your smartphone screen (TVs), throw your music (stereos) and use as a TV remote.
Most unintentionally hilarious stand – ZTE
A whole stand of ‘booth babes’ standing around smiling inanely while men leered at them ‘ none of them had any idea about the products they were supposed to be hawking. Also, reading out competition winners and other announcements in ‘excited’ monotone over the loud speaker with giant video screens everywhere (in broken English too) created a near satirical 1984 vibe to the whole proceeding. Like being at a car or video game show in the 90s.
Stand ‘so large it’s a bit insane’ – Samsung
About the size of a football field, there were about 20 of every item Samsung announced before the show (probably more, I got tired of walking around it). Definitely wasn’t hard to find demo units to work with. None of them were particularly amazing though.
Worst showcase – Intel
A bizarre stand that never really seemed to be full (it was also opposite more successful rival Qualcomm), with a Tony Robbins style lecturer on the corner continuously lecturing… to no one in particular. Like a mad preacher man on Hyde Park corner (only with less people listening), discussing ‘shifting paradigms’ and ‘producing synergies’. Most people walking past seemed confused, looked a bit awkward, and shuffled on.
Best product – Nokia 105
Absolutely loved Nokia’s surprise announcement. The idea of a Ã¢¬15, water and dust resistant phone is a winner. Its battery lasts for a month on standby, 12 hours talking straight, and 2-3 days of moderate usage. It even looks cute. Definitely a choice for the summer festivals, travelling in dodgy countries, or as a basic back up phone. Tradesmen will love it.
Runner up – Sony Xperia Tablet Z
We couldn’t call this best in show ‘ it was unveiled in Japan a month or so ago. But it remains the most technically impressive piece of hardware, and a definite competitor to Google’s Android and Apple’s iPad ‘ if Sony can get all its converged departments to focus as one (and get rid of the bloatware). The screen resolution is a bit lower than the iPad though, and we couldn’t test battery life. Fun to dunk in water though.
You can read our full report on Mobile World Congress in the April issue of What Mobile, in shops March 14.