As the chills of February give way to the renewal of March, the mobile industry kicks off its year with the grand Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. In years past, this has been the launchpad for tons of smartphone innovation — so we keep hoping for more of the same — but in 2017 MWC is rather different.
The real change-makers in the mobile industry now are people like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who’ll be speaking in Barcelona on Monday, and new US FCC chief Ajit Pai, who’ll be talking up 5G on Tuesday. When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance during Samsung’s MWC 2016 keynote, he stole the show, and with good reason. The decisions made by US and European regulators (the European Commission’s Andrus Ansip is another keynote speaker), content providers like Netflix, and internet gatekeepers like Facebook will alter our mobile lives in far bigger ways than the latest anodized aluminum bijou for your pocket.
Yes, there’ll be new phones here in Barcelona, but what used to be the premier phone show is now more openly an industry event than ever. You just have to think of MWC a little more like CES: richer on long-term future developments and less focused on flashing awesome retail devices in front of our faces.
To my mind, there are only four phones that will be truly impactful in 2017 and none of them are going to be launching at MWC: Apple’s iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy S8, Google’s second Pixel, and the next OnePlus handset.
The iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy device are market-altering phones whose importance requires little explanation. They are the two handsets that each year set the bar of expectations for premium phones. OnePlus is the little company that keeps coming closest to that high benchmark at a much more attractive price. And the Google Pixel is already, in my judgment, the best smartphone in the world courtesy of its unsurpassed camera, so its sequel should be anticipated with enthusiasm.
Alas, Samsung has shifted its flagship launch out of MWC, OnePlus and Apple traditionally introduce their big new devices at the tail end of the summer, and Google’s likely aiming for October with its next Pixel. So that leaves most of our MWC phone hopes in the hands of LG. Let that sink in for a moment.
Nokia’s back at Mobile World Congress, but it’s a pale shadow of the old design and engineering leader that launched such amazing devices as the PureView 808. Sony’s back too, but when was the last time that a Sony Xperia actually lived up to the hopes elicited during MWC? LG’s G6 looks promising, but the Korean company’s another repeat offender when it comes to building hype with its engineering nous and then letting people down with the user experience. HTC didn’t even wait for MWC to underwhelm with its so-called Ultra phones. I no longer trust these well recognized names to build an uncompromised smartphone, and I don’t think you should either.
I get the sense that this is a trend that will continue. It probably isn’t an accident that OnePlus enjoys greater international success than the hordes of fellow Chinese upstarts by launching its flagship in the latter half of the year. In 2017, that may mean that OnePlus will have access to a reasonable supply of Snapdragon 835 chips — which no MWC debutant will be able to tap into, thanks in part to Samsung. Google’s Pixel launch window is also perfect to attract both holiday shoppers and iPhone owners whose two-year contract might have expired but who haven’t yet committed to another iPhone. The big difference will just have to be distribution and availability — everyone likes the Pixel now, but very few people can actually buy one.
What I’m saying is that the phone hardware industry still has its intrigue, but it’s increasingly disconnected from the big issues of the mobile world. Whether it’s Qualcomm’s silicon roadmap, the Android release window, or better positioning new products to match buying trends, the attraction of MWC as a launch platform for major new phones is fading for the companies most confident in the quality of their devices.
And that’s honestly fine. We should be paying more attention to the vast waves of incoming connected devices and their full set of implications. For instance, I’m legitimately interested to try a new smart door lock from Yale and Safe4 (which can automatically trigger and adjust lighting or shut off the electric and water supply in a home), and Samsonite’s Track&Go luggage-tagging system is also going to get its debut at MWC.
The phone industry has plateaued and now moves very slowly, compared to other tech. OnePlus didn’t deliver a knockout punch with its first phone: it took three generations to rank among the elite. Google did it with the Pixel, but that company had eight previous attempts at the smartphone challenge through its Nexus program.
The advantages of the leading phone makers build up in a compounding fashion that makes it incredibly hard for anyone to disrupt the status quote out of the blue. But the same isn’t true of the developing areas like the smart home — which has always seemed like a mocking joke until Amazon introduced Alexa and now its voice assistant is everywhere and on everything. That sort of disruption isn’t just possible here at MWC, it should probably be expected. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for it.
MWC will still be fun for phone geeks — who isn’t looking forward to a new Nokia 3310 — but its focus has shifted to areas where bigger leaps forward are possible.