Mobile World Congress 2013 – Trip Report

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to attend many mobile-related conferences, but Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona really takes the cake for sheer size and opulence. Eight halls, 72000+ attendees, 4 days of continuous booth duty – it was quite overwhelming, but wholly fulfilling at the same time. Never have I seen so many people passionate about mobile technologies all mingling in one place, nor so many companies competing to show their best mobile products all at once.

Trends

In the style of Steven Sinofsky (see his CES trip report), here are some of the major trends I noticed.

Focus on the “next billion” smartphones

Between Nokia’s announce of 4 new low-cost phones and strength of the FirefoxOS / Ubuntu launches, the battleground is clearly shifting towards the emerging markets. Who can make the most affordable device for the broadest available audience? It’s still an open question whether the devices that will win will be low-cost Android devices from Samsung, phones from Nokia’s Asha line, or new upcoming handsets built by Chinese manufacturers running FirefoxOS…

Carrier control

It feels like the carriers have taken over MWC, and the industry as a whole.  They get a non-proportional share of the coverage (just watch this MWC overview video), and their blessing is required for any device or platform to thrive. Look no further than the FirefoxOS press conference, which could have flopped but instead became the biggest news of the week when huge numbers of telcos turned up to voice their support.

You can also see their influence when it comes to other developing platforms for smartphones – both Ubuntu and Tizen are looking like they’ll evolve into carrier-controlled, thoroughly customizable operating systems that will finally enable a carrier like Verizon to create their “Verizon phone” or similar.

In this manner, these carriers are actually quite effectively disassociating themselves from their “dumb pipe” origins, but whether the results are truly better for the end-users is still undetermined.

Fewer device launches

Just like CES, there is definitely less of a focus on new hardware and big product announcements from the major manufacturers this year. All of these companies are realizing that it is not worth it to compete for attention at an event when all your competitors will be doing the same. The problem is… since all of the big players thought this way, an actual dearth of news manifests during the conference itself! Or, in this year’s case, the path is left open for smaller players (Firefox and Ubuntu) or Chinese manufacturers (ZTE and Huawei) to make a splash.

Subsequently, a lot of the device manufacturers (except Samsung of course) had a reduced booth presence – HTC’s and Sony’s booths were fractions of the size they were last year.

Hero devices

For the manufacturers that did show off their stuff, they stuck mostly to displaying their flagship (or “hero”) devices instead of their entire lineup. HTC’s booth pretty much only had the HTC One on display, Sony was touting the Xperia Z, etc. It results in a simpler choice at the high-end of the market, and lets the manufacturers pour all their design, engineering, and marketing resources into one device each.

Parties

Every conference comes with its share of sponsored company parties, and MWC is no exception – maybe it’s the city or maybe it’s the stress of the daily hustle, but attendees go all out at night here. Barcelona is an eclectic city with a huge mix of venues for all tastes, and this was demonstrated with the wide variety of locales for the company parties I was fortunate enough to receive invites for.

Box

Of course Box kept it classy with our “Mobile Enterprise Celebration” at the classic Hotel Casa Fuster. Open bar as always, great small bites circulating the room, and a DJ spinning some chill tunes made for a great place to network and kick off the week.

Sony

Sony’s “hospitality event” was just held inside their booth, but they decked it out with tablets and Xperia Zs, excellent hors d’oeuvres, and entertained us with presentations about the new Pottermore project and experiments in augmented reality for their PlayStation platform. The highlight was that all attendees received a complimentary Xperia Z and accessories, an extremely generous gift by all standards!

Dell

Dell’s “Wyse” event was held at a city treasure – Casa Milà (La Pedrera) on Passeig de Gràcia. This is one of famous architect Gaudí’s masterpieces, and one of the most unusual houses I’ve ever stepped foot in. Going up a winding staircase, each floor has unique rooms preserved in their early 1900s style. The top of the building is the most stunning, however, as the attic is made of stone arches and the rooftop itself is one continuous rolling staircase set on wave-like platforms. Truly has to be seen in person to appreciate.

Google (Android)

Google keeps its reputation for having the wildest parties with this Android “Head Space” party at Razzmatazz. Essentially a rap concert featuring Tinie Tempah and Florence and the Machine, attendees were given green headbands and let free to mosh for a few hours with an open bar and desserts. You can imagine the insanity.

Nokia

Nokia by far had the most lavish party. Held at the Sotavento Beach Club right by the water, they filled up the place with delectable small bites (pina colada cubes and dry ice corn puffs were some of the highlights), a DJ spinning Top 40 (making for quite the dance floor), a game center where attendees could play with Nokia 920s and an Xbox, and finally a wine tasting game where you blind taste test 4 wines and try to match them to their tasting notes. I almost nailed the wine game – just mixed up two of them!

Qualcomm

Qualcomm had the swankiest party, opting to hold theirs at the old Barcelona Stock Exchange at La Llotja, a venue with a beautiful sky-high ceiling, Gothic-style pillars throughout, some of the most authentic Catalan food I’ve seen, and table dancers that changed their outfits every 15 minutes or so.

Thanks to these parties, I was able to get a good feel for the city of Barcelona and soak in some culture/food without even needing to go out touring. But after the conference, there was still lots to see – you can take a look at my next post for details on non-corporate-sponsored fun there is to be had in Barcelona.

All in all, a very good conference. Well worth the trip to Europe, and then some!

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