Saturday 18 November 2017

MWC shows why mobile is the big beast now

Former politician Declan Ganley. Photo: Damien Eagers
Former politician Declan Ganley. Photo: Damien Eagers
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Earlier this month, HP (Inc) announced the closure of its Irish facility, with the loss of 500 jobs. One big reason is that HP missed the mobile boat, focusing instead on laptops and printers.

Laptops, we now see, are an endangered species. It is mobiles that are becoming utterly dominant.

This point will be made clearer in Barcelona over the next few days, where the world's biggest mobile tech conference takes place.

As you read this, your correspondent will be knee-deep in new smartphones, chips, drones and virtual reality headsets.

While the biggest beast, Apple, won't officially be presenting, Mobile World Congress is where much of the world's daily communications agenda will be set for the next year. Regulators, chip makers, hardware manufacturers, operators, network infrastructure providers and software firms will all lay out their stalls for how our lives will be governed in the foreseeable future.

Other than the shape of our next smartphone, there are some big issues at stake.

Take 5G. Most people don't appreciate just how important and powerful 5G will be. It's not just that speeds will be hundreds (or even thousands) of megabits per second, dwarfing the fastest current 4G signals. It's that 5G is expected to become the wireless broadband upon which everything will be based. Things like cars and buses can only really achieve self-driving levels if 5G-type services are available. Robots and other machines will similarly reach new levels of usefulness with this kind of connectivity on tap. And for the rest of us, 5G will probably transform our lives in ways we don't yet appreciate - greater in magnitude than our switch from old mobiles to smartphones 10 years ago.

Sadly, for the first time in a generation, Europe looks like it will trail the US in a new mobile technology. While US operators look set to roll out the equivalent of ultra-fast fibre broadband between phones soon, Europe is mired in competing tests, regulatory dithering and financial uncertainty.

This show is of inordinate relevance to Irish companies, too. At least 30 are displaying their wares here. There's Anam, which is using the event to announce a big deal with German mobile operator T-Mobile. There's Cork-based Software Radio Systems which will announce a deal with a US network operator. Even tangential deals, like Aer Berlin's new in-flight 3G service, is being used as a platform at the show for companies like Druid Software to point out their involvement.

Other Irish interests take a keen interest, too. Former politician Declan Ganley is an habitual visitor. His Rivada Networks company is looking to capitalise on soaring demand for spectrum in a 4G and 5G era.

So what kind of future is Mobile World Congress painting for us? Can Samsung, which has plummeted in brand reputation after its Note 7 fiasco, recover with any new products? Can Huawei, which is eyeing up Samsung's position as the main competitor to Apple's iPhone, break through this year? And what of the smaller manufacturers trying to turn things around, such as Sony and HTC? Is Microsoft completely dead as a phone system now? Could we see resurrections from BlackBerry and Nokia?

On a broader level, Mobile World Congress may signal a long-term shift in user habits from Windows and Mac OS based computing systems to ones closer to iOS or Android.

For most people, smartphone interfaces are now the most familiar computing system they know. Increasingly, it is Windows and Mac OS interfaces that look complicated compared to the 'ordinary' smartphone systems.

In the medium to long term, it makes sense that this familiarity will start to translate into people's work devices.

For many, being told that their work computers would start to resemble more phone systems may not bristle as much as we now think.

Of course, this is largely what you get with iPads and Android tablets. And sales of those are falling rather than increasing.

But current tablets are still severely limited in size, form and reach. It's easy to forget that, as a computing system, their ecosystem isn't even seven years old. Talk to many people who bought an iPad and they still have the one they bought four or five years ago, used mostly for online video streaming.

But go into any airport business lounge and you'll see dozens of iPads being used by business folk. They're simply much handier to get things done quickly on.

Some of the biggest, most influential manufacturers are starting to bet on this trend. Lenovo, which vies with Dell and HP at the top of the PC manufacturing heap, recently launched its Yoga Book. This is a moderately priced tablet-and-keyboard combo that adds in extra productivity features. It's aimed mainly at students and younger people, who aren't as brainwashed into thinking that PCs are 'real' computers while phones are 'add-ons'.

It's a phone's world now.

Sunday Indo Business

Promoted Links

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Promoted Links

Also in Business