Sensors and Screenless Interfaces: 3 Takeaways from MWC17

This year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona delivered the usual press and industry spectacle. While MWC was once merely an annual event for the telecom world to meet and network and to initiate new business models and partnership ideas, today the event has grown to include more than 100,000 attendees, and exhibitors include everyone from major device manufacturers to adtech platforms, mobile app publishers, analytics and optimization services, and more. From my perspective, this simply underscores the fact that mobile has evolved beyond its initial role as a way of connecting people via wireless means, to an entrenched technology that supports use cases and business models that range from commerce to authentication, and entertainment to payments. In short, I think that mobile has become a next generation version of the internet, and the holistic ecosystem of people and companies attending MWC reflects that.

Calm before the storm: Verto's booth in Hall 8.1 shortly before the show opened.

MWC17: No Showstoppers, But Incremental Innovations Abound

While previous MWC gatherings have been used as a platform for big announcements, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s campaign to provide free internet across emerging markets, or major product launches from the likes of Nokia and Microsoft, this year’s event was not dominated by a single headline-maker. Instead, several smaller (but no less interesting) stories emerged, such as Huawei’s push to use artificial intelligence to drive improvements in user experience and the utility of smartphones and device comebacks for both Nokia and Blackberry (the question is, are these just publicity stunts or is there actual potential?). I was also impressed by the efforts of the big telecom companies, from Verizon to Telefonica, into areas ranging from virtual reality to connected cars. But overall, I saw three major themes emerge from the conference that I feel will heavily influence mobile in the coming year:

  1. Artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and machine learning: while we addressed the growing role of AI-driven apps and devices in consumer mobile behavior in our recent report, Multitasking and Mobile Apps: New Ways to Measure Consumer Behavior, exhibitors like Ericsson and showed off what this would look like in an enterprise context, demonstrating AI-driven predictive tools for network management and industrial automation.
  2. Screenless interfaces: voice, sensors, and gestures intersect with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR): we also addressed the rise of the screenless interface in Multitasking and Mobile Apps: New Ways to Measure Consumer Behavior, noting the growth of apps like Alexa, which connect consumers to their surrounding environments without relying on a screen as an interface. In fact, out of the top 1000 apps (based on monthly users) in the U.S., 4% belong to this category, which includes smart home, personal assistant, and quantified self apps.

3. The internet of things and 5G: of course, we’ll need next-generation connectivity to power the next wave of screenless, AI-driven technologies. While the major digital companies – from Facebook to Google and beyond – underscored the importance of bringing broadband mobile connectivity to emerging markets and driving their user growth for the foreseeable future, the promise of 5G is still a challenge, especially for the operators and telecoms who will ultimately be responsible for rolling out the network at scale.

For the major carriers, the consensus is that the next wave of innovation and lies in connecting an increasing number of devices and services to the internet – and creating increasingly smart ecosystems with increased automation, security, and convenience for consumers who demand improved options for entertainment and content. However, based on my discussions in Barcelona with several senior industry executives, mass-market implementation and revenue opportunities may still lag behind consumer expectations.

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