Mobile World Congress 2019: Where smartphone battles unfolded

Beyond the impressive new smartphone tech that we saw at Mobile World Congress, what does it all mean for the future of mainstream devices and average users?

Mobile World Congress: Where smartphone battles unfolded
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At the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, companies made a number of key announcements that will ultimately have a major impact on the smartphone market. While the technical details of the announcements have been well covered, let’s dig a little deeper and see what they mean for device futures and average users.

Foldable devices

One of the biggest headline grabbers was foldable smartphones. While Samsung went first and slightly before MWC with its Galaxy Fold, Huawei made a major splash with its Mate X at MWC. And even some non-household names had foldables (e.g., Royole). Is there really a future for a phone that cost $2,000 or more? The current models were specifically designed to be “halo” devices that appeal only to the elite buyer. And, yes, there are plenty of buyers who are willing to spend $2K or more on a premiere device that buys them a unique status position and bragging rights. But the better way to evaluate these devices is to look at what it means for the long term evolution of smartphones.

In the past, new smartphone technology (e.g., edge-to-edge displays, OLED, multi-cameras, assistants like Siri and Bixby, biometrics, and 4GLTE/GB LTE) started out initially in high-end devices and then filtered down into the mid tier and lower end over time. There is every reason to believe the same will be true of foldable displays, and I estimate that in one to two years, you’ll find a foldable display device in the $700-$800 range, which today is the mainstream “sweet spot” of the market. And there will be a variety of such devices (e.g., screen size, intelligent features, etc.) available.

While regular displays aren’t going away, foldable displays will become mainstream unless there is some fundamental problem with the technology, such as high failure rates, that we are not currently aware of, especially for users who really value a larger tablet-size display at times but want the convenience of a smaller form factor.

5G devices

Several devices with 5G capabilities were announced at MWC, although shipping dates and final prices were not. The battle was on to see who could provide the processing and modem engines to enable 5G devices in the rush to deploy the technology. Samsung and Huawei, in particular, battled it out by announcing and showing 5G devices. Huawei claimed its own in-house-developed and proprietary processor and modem powering the MateX runs faster than the competing Qualcomm chips in the Samsung and other devices. But that’s hard to judge at this point because Qualcomm has much credibility and technological prowess in 5G.

However, Huawei has no plans to ship any of its devices in the U.S. Samsung did not indicate when it will ship its 5G model, nor did the makers of more than 20 design wins that Qualcomm claims for future 5G devices. I expect to see them in the market near the end of this year in time for the holiday rush.

But from a user perspective, the real question is not so much when these premiere devices will ship but when I’ll want to buy one. Early devices will likely be sold at a premium. But the real benefits of 5G will take two to three years to fully be deployed, as it will take that long to achieve 5G connectivity at the more than 75 percent of the time I want it (early implementations this year will be highly limited in coverage). Further, it’s not yet clear what premium the carriers will charge for 5G, although T-Mobile already started the price battle by saying it won’t charge a premium. Finally, it’s not yet clear what the impact on battery life will be. In the past, new generation wireless connections had an adverse effect on the battery life of devices until the technology matured.

While many operators claim the 5G rollout will be much faster than for 4G and hence users will want 5G phones now, I believe that many people will wait until the benefits of 5G are clear (many are quite happy with their current 4G/LTE devices). It’s likely the initial devices will be expensive, and there is major consumer pushback to buying a new device when the one they have seems perfectly adequate. I expect the real boost in 5G phone sales is at least one to two years away.

Smartphone cameras

The capabilities of cameras in smartphones have undergone some drastic improvements over the past few years. In fact, most consumers are more interested in the features and functions available for the camera than they are in the quality and ability to make phone calls. It’s the era of social media, after all, and photo capability is absolutely critical to many users. Smartphone makers are not only adding more cameras (e.g., super wide angle in the new Galaxy devices), but also IR and other enhanced technology for better focus, selfies, biometrics, etc.

Also, many vendors now include automated, artificial intelligence-based processing capability to enhance the photos and videos, making for much better quality than we’ve been able to achieve in the past. I expect this push towards better, automated, intelligent photography to continue as companies look to differentiate their devices.

For the casual user wanting the best possible stills and videos, this is a real advantage over past devices, and in certain cases may actually be why a consumer buys a new device.

It’s not just about the high end

While it’s easy to concentrate on the high-end devices where the “buzz” is, about 25 to 30 percent of phones sold in the U.S. are in the “feature phone” category. These smaller devices with slower processors, less memory, and fewer overall features are a significant and important part of the market. HMD, using the venerable Nokia brand, has new feature phones at the $300 to $400 price point that will do well in this tier (other vendors also offer phones in this space). While not as “sexy,” it’s still an important market that often gets overlooked. I expect many of the features we see in today’s crop of higher-end smartphones (e.g., bezel-less screen, biometrics, intelligent assistants) to make their way downstream over the next two to three years, and it will likely take that long for these devices to be 5G-enabled, as well.

The bottom line

MWC is typically where the major vendors get to show off their latest tech and show consumers what’s coming next. And many of the devices shown were quite impressive. But it’s important to recognize that looking beyond the hype, not all of the technology will be quickly available, affordable, or attractive to a large swath of users, at least in the first iteration. But MWC does clearly show us where the devices are going longer term and what it means for all of us who can’t live without our smart devices.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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