technology

What to Watch for in Gadgets, Deals From the Biggest Mobile Show

  • It’ll be Sony versus Samsung on phones, along with drones
  • Telecom chiefs to talk shop amid a deal revival in the sector
Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

Mobile World Congress, the wireless industry’s biggest conference, begins next week in Barcelona, where more than 100,000 people are set to see the latest smartphones, artificial intelligence devices and autonomous drones exhibited by roughly 2,300 companies.

The event is also the industry’s largest networking opportunity for executives, bankers, analysts and the like to talk shop -- and potential deals. Some 5,500 CEOs, among them Deutsche Telekom AG’s Tim Hoettges and Vodafone Group Plc’s Vittorio Colao, will jostle for airtime discussing the major trends shaping the industry such as cybersecurity, the arrival of ultrafast fifth-generation mobile networks and blockchain.

Tim Hoettges

Photographer: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg

Here are the big themes likely to dominate the event:

Samsung to Sony in device battle

MWC has long been a venue for companies to show off their latest mobile devices and vie for consumer attention. This year, Samsung is back to unveil its latest flagship phone, widely expected to be the Galaxy S9. Sony created buzz when it posted a video on Twitter last Sunday for what looks like it could be a new Xperia device with curves, and gadget blogs such as Wired have speculated whether foldable phones will make their debut this year.

HMD Global Oy is expected to present more Nokia-branded phones after making headlines with a reboot of the iconic Nokia 3310 in 2017. There’s more than just phones: There will be dozens of smartwatches, tablets, and drones debuted at MWC, as device makers push wearables.

M&A is Back

After a lull through most of 2017, deals chatter is abuzz again. Vodafone’s move for Liberty Global Plc’s cable assets in continental Europe will be a key talking point, along with what Liberty’s John Malone might do with any proceeds from that sale. Scandinavia has also been busy, with Danish phone carrier TDC A/S being bought by a group of pension funds after announcing a now-defunct deal with Sweden’s Modern Times Group AB. And Telenor ASA, the Nordic region’s biggest carrier, has received interest for its businesses in central and eastern Europe.

It’s all part of the continued drive by carriers for scale and the ability to offer bundles of mobile, fixed and TV services, to attract and retain customers while allowing them to squeeze more profits. “We’ve got a fairly serious realignment going on,” said Richard Price, head of telecoms, media and technology at MUFG in London. “The fixed-mobile convergence theme is back big time.”

The Buzzwords: VR, AI, blockchain

The wireless industry’s bet is that emerging technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and blockchain can help create new products and fresh revenue streams as traditional sales wane. There’s hope that AI can help make networks more efficient by more accurately predicting demand, and cut service costs by replacing human workers with chatbots.

Telefonica SA has already used blockchain technology -- the ledger system that underpins Bitcoin -- to sell loans in Germany, and is exploring how the technology can be deployed for more corporate processes. VR devices have been around at MWC for a few years now, but they largely continue to occupy the enthusiast video-gamer niche. The ambition for device-makers is that as the products become more powerful, smaller and lighter, VR use cases will mushroom, luring a greater part of the population to actually buy them.

5G Gets Real(er)

Recent conferences have been awash with talk and pledges around 5G, the next-generation wireless network technology that promises speeds 10 times faster and lower lag times in transferring data. This will allow for the rise of driverless cars on highways and potentially even surgeries in far-flung, remote places by a doctor in an urban hospital.

While most mobile-phone companies are targeting 2020 to start rolling out the technology, issues like network standards, high spectrum prices, as well as interference from rain, trees and fog continue to pose problems.

Analysts expect to hear more on how the technology can be deployed beyond the autonomous vehicles at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang or connected refrigerators, and how carriers can turn 5G -- which requires massive investments -- into hard cash. “We haven’t seen a huge amount of specific user cases that say ‘This is what you can do with 5G that you couldn’t do before,’” said Chris Woodland, a partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants in London. “There’ll be discussion about whether there are some more compelling, revenue-generating user cases than first envisaged.”

Connected machines

5G also offers new opportunities for the so-called Internet of Things market. The likes of BT Group Plc, Vodafone and Telefonica are trying to sell products and services to companies by helping them digitize their processes and hook factories up to the internet so they work more efficiently. They’re betting on this corporate market mainly because they know they’ve already lost major growth opportunities linked to consumers to the web giants -- Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

Deutsche Telekom’s Hoettges has said he sees the average person owning six devices hooked to the internet by 2020 and millions of electronic SIM cards making it into cars, factories and machines across Germany. MWC will see companies from a new ecosystem to service this emerging business area showcasing their latest IoT and related technology -- think cybersecurity firms pitching how to best safeguard your machines once they’re online.

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