Mobile is Everything! So sang the banner at last week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. A bold statement no less from an industry approaching the cusp of another generation from several directions.
MWC is the wireless industry flagship event where the present mixes freely with the future for one week in February every year. As a regular attendee I have to confess I have become a bit jaded. Too many years on the relentless grind to peak smartphone and the seemingly incremental refinements on all our favorite black rectangles has made me a little difficult to impress.
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This year was different though. I think 2016 will be remembered as one of those special years where things started to change. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of new phone launches on display including shiny new offerings from Samsung, Sony and LG. Accessorized ecosystems would seem to be the thing this year with each new phone accompanied by “friends” like 360-degree cameras, remotely controlled bots and high definition audio systems. All good fun but this was not what impressed me.
The most profound theme in the show for me this year was the heavy promotion of virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) platforms and products. This is certainly new for this show. The support of new user interfaces like VR/AR at scale is one of the key goals of 5G. Seeing big pushes of this tech by large manufacturers and operators in the same backdrop of the many 5G demos and presentations seemed more than coincidental. Samsung even rolled out Mark Zuckerberg to provide support and endorsement for the launch of their new VR platform.
AR/VR technology has been around for many years but it has never made it to mass market adoption. I believe the reasons for this are core wireless technology deficiencies. Problems like high latency and poor battery performance have been stifling impediments to the proliferation of these new user interfaces. The goals of 5G include addressing these issues.
AR/VR is not without its challenges however and the most notable of these are immature ecosystems and insufficient compelling content. If shoot em up action is your thing then you are all set but the value proposition of AR/VR is much higher than this and it will take time for the needed content ecosystems to mature. Probably about as long as it will take for 5G to start having some market impact.
I would argue that one of the best things that could happen for 5G will be if AR/VR products of any sorts becomes a must have on everyone’s Santa list this year. This ecosystem needs to start growing now and end users need to start getting engaged for what is coming.
The Internet of Things (IoT) was the third key theme in the show and it also seems like this space is approaching an inflection point too. I was reminded of where the wireless industry was around 2008 and 2009. Today, we take for granted that there are only two main phone platforms, iOS and Android but back then there were literally dozens of contenders for these crowns. It is not clear yet how the IoT platform race will play out but it is coming. The opportunity here is certainly several orders of magnitude bigger and I doubt it will be as simple as before.
One thing is clear. Everything is intertwined. 5G will enable the IoT and it will enable the ubiquitous adoption of new user interfaces like AR/VR. In turn, AR/VR will make the management and visualization of the IoT possible and valuable for us all. This is what is coming and putting this all together is the challenge that everyone in the wireless industry has ahead of them.
This all said, and with so much work obviously still to do one big question remains. What will the show be called next year? If Mobile is Everything now then where do we go from here, Everything 2.0? I will have to leave that one with the marketing folks to work out. I am sure they will before February rolls around again.
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