Mobile World Congress 2015: Evolution but no revolution

Mobile World Congress 2015 reflected less the handset innovation of recent years, and more the evolution of mobility

The Blackberry Leap, the Honor 6+, the HTC One M9 and the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge were just a few of the keynote smartphone launches anchoring Mobile World Congress 2015, making sure the 90,000 people passing through the doors at the Fira Gran Via in Barcelona between 2 and 5 March felt they got their money’s worth.

But for all the glitz, and flashy stands, there was a sense that there was little going on in the way of innovation when it came to the headline handsets, and things were just ticking over nicely.

Take the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, where the jury is out on whether or not its use of screen real estate on the sides of the handset really counts as innovation. Others showed off features such as improved cameras, with a particular emphasis on the ubiquitous selfie.

Or for a steampunk twist on the smartphone, US-based startup Monohm – a self-described maker of "heirloom electronics" – launched the Runcible, a device that resembles a Victorian pocket watch.

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All quiet on the smartphone front

With the 4G roll-out advancing well in mature markets, and attention beginning to turn to 5G, it was maybe natural that things would feel a little less heated.

Kevin Curran, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Ulster and a member of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers, argued that the smartphone market is now saturated.

According to Curran, current technology is reaching a plateau in terms of screen size and pixel density. This, he believes, has left suppliers “desperately trying to distinguish themselves” from one another.

Research carried out by consultancy Accenture backs up Curran’s view. The consultancy found consumer purchasing plans for mobile devices were declining, with 54% of people saying they planned to buy a smartphone this year, down from 58% in 2014.

Mobility, literally

So if it was essentially business as usual when it came to smartphones, where was the innovation at Mobile World Congress?

Along with the entirely predictable deluge of unique wearable sports watches, one of the biggest draws of Mobile World Congress proved to be the connected car.

From Fiats to Volvos, Cadillacs and Chevrolets – and even a Maserati Quattroporte – everybody wanted to show off their smart car technology and how their mobile phone products integrate into the vehicle.

Ford went one step further and had its own stand, where it launched two e-bicycles, the MoDe:Me and the MoDe:Pro, and a prototype journey planning app, MoDe:Link, extending the Smart Mobility programme it launched at the beginning of the year at CES Las Vegas.

Further announcements – from Volvo, which unveiled a collision avoidance system in collaboration with its compatriot Ericsson; and Renault-Nissan, which revealed it plans to bring an autonomous car to market next year – showed how mobile technology is now literally going mobile.

After driving your connected car to the shops or the bank, getting more from your smartphone when you get there was also on the agenda. Avanade, a managed services joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft, for example, showed off its Digital Store concept at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2015.

The Digital Store – demonstrated using a mocked-up estate agent – allows passers-by to control the window display using gestures detected by a Microsoft Kinect, and forwards information on the properties direct to the user’s device if they want. Avanade believes this will boost retail businesses, by allowing customers to shop out of hours.

Meanwhile its Omnibranch mobile banking concept will allow retail banks to create a small, mobile pop-up bank at venues such as exhibition centres or entertainment venues, offering retail services and automated access to both current and potential customers on a digital wall.

The service allows customers to carry out online banking, although for obvious reasons the feature is pushed directly to the device, instead of the face of the wall.

We can use this opportunity to talk to governments about the future of the mobile internet and the need for more spectrum – this is a pivotal year

 Herman Schepers, GSMA 

The future of data

Market saturation and the proliferation of connected devices, such as cars that count as mobiles, brings with it the problem of network saturation.

Later this year, MWC organiser the GSM Alliance (GSMA) will be heading to Geneva for the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference, a four-yearly event that sets out to review and, if needed, revise the international treaties that govern the use of the radio frequency spectrum.

At the conference the GSMA’s Spectrum Team will be pushing for significant tweaks to help prioritise spectrum allocation for mobile broadband. Roberto Ercole, senior director of long-term spectrum, believes an additional 600 to 800MHz of spectrum will be needed to accommodate mobile data traffic and avoid the prospect of a “capacity crunch”.

Currently it takes about 10 years from the time new spectrum is allocated to the time it comes into use; hence the decisions taken this year will affect the network of 2025, when 5G and the internet of things will be long-established.

The GSMA is using MWC 2015 to demonstrate what will be needed to support future evolution, said Herman Schepers, senior director of the GSMA Spectrum4All campaign.

As part of MWC, the GSMA is running a ministerial programme with about 140 government delegations and heads of regulators in attendance.

“We can use this opportunity to talk to them about the future of the mobile internet and the need for more spectrum,” says Schepers. “This is a pivotal year.”

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