At MWC17 - Gadgets Overshadowed by Progress with 5G, IoT and Telco Digital Transformation
As usual, much of the focus at Mobile World Congress was on devices. Many vendors were announcing their latest and greatest, including Huawei and LG. The usual refresh of smartphones came out, showing off further increases in power and battery life, optimization for video, storage, and speed, improved cameras, and other features. One story that stands out is the return of Nokia-branded mobile phones. Nokia-branded smartphones were relaunched, including a cute rejig of the historically best-selling 3310 feature phone.
But beyond the smartphones, vendors are continuing to deploy wearables in the hopes of jump-starting that struggling market. Several vendors showed off their latest smart watches, while Sony demonstrated some cool gadgets, including Xperia Ear, a new earpiece with voice-activated controls, and Xperia Touch, a small box that projects an image of a touch screen onto any surface and lets the user control the projected screen like a touchscreen device.
The devices attracting perhaps the most attention were the virtual reality headsets. These are far more widely used this year than last and are noticeably sleeker in design. In 2016, there were just a few VR demos showing off the headsets themselves, and each with very long lines, while this year the headsets were used at many booths as a tool to show off other products. And the high-end demos continued to advance, including Samsung's flight simulator seat that whips the virtual pilot upside down while he/she flies in VR. Additionally, augmented reality was now getting its day with a few demos, including one from Ubuntu showing how AR can aid a field maintenance worker's job.
But although gadgets are prominent, much of the business of MWC was about what happens behind the scenes. The conference was full of discussions about Internet of Things (IoT), telco digital transformation, and 5G networks. IoT maintained a position of prominence: Even before MWC started, the GSMA trade association representing the mobile industry hosted a half-day conference on mobile IoT. The conference highlighted the industry's rapid progress over the past year in standardizing and widely piloting multiple low-power wide-area (LPWA) network standards. Dozens of commercial network deployments will occur in 2017, mostly using narrow band (NB) IoT, finally getting the major mobile industry players back on pace with other LPWA variations being deployed in unlicensed spectrum. The conference also demonstrated that all the major industry players, from chipset manufacturers and module producers to network vendors and operators, are on the same page and ready to drive the standards-based connectivity solutions forward.
But IoT is not just about connectivity. The whole ecosystem was present to promote other technology components and end-to-end solutions. Connected vehicles were one of the most popular IoT themes. There seemed to be dozens of connected automobiles showing off in-car infotainment systems, fleet management systems, autonomous driving, and the safety benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle communications.
Aside from automobiles, there was a large display area, called Innovation City demonstrating dozens of other IoT use cases supporting utilities, retail, and other verticals. While the use cases attracted attention, vendors promoted their products and services in integration, AI-assisted analytics, application development platforms, business process consulting, security, and other components of a successful end-to-end IoT solution.
Much of the excitement at the event, however, focused on developments in the core telecom industry, specifically around 5G networks and digital transformation. 5G network standards have not yet been finalized, but pre-standard releases now exist, and commercial production is not far off. 5G encompasses many things, but one key feature is a massive increase in bandwidth, combined with a sharp reduction in latency and the addition of very high frequency bands (above 20GHz) for small cells in dense areas. Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia are all showing off demos of 5G radio access and aiming to help telcos integrate 5G radio while continuing to upgrade core networks with cloud-based network function virtualization (NFV).
Beyond the core telecom network infrastructure, vendors and operators are all keen to discuss telco digital transformation. Like other industries, telecom service providers have recognized that their IT systems are virtualizing, shifting to the cloud, and incorporating big data analytics and machine learning. These trends enable them (or their competitors) to customize services, drastically improve the customer experience, and sharply increase their agility in launching new services, all while cutting operating costs. Telecom players agrees that digital transformation is underway and that it is a must, though the industry seems far less in agreement on how exactly to go about it and what it ultimately means for operators. Given the early stage of the process, it is a safe bet that digital transformation will again be a hot topic at next year's MWC.