Mobile Digest: Mobile World Congress shines spotlight on connected living

Smartphones can’t carry a trade show the way they once did, but MWC 2017 made up for it with a strong focus on the Internet of Things. Andrew Tolve reports.

In the news

 

In the absence of a flagship debut from Samsung, and with smartphone and tablet innovation flagging in general, Mobile World Congress 2017 turned its focus from mobile devices to the broader theme of connected living. Smart devices, smart home systems, and smart digital assistants were peppered around the exhibition floor. In one of the biggest announcements of the show, Google revealed that its Google Assistant will now come standard on all Android devices running Android 6 and up. This forces Samsung’s hand to integrate Google Assistant into the Galaxy S8 and sets Google up for a showdown with Amazon Alexa as the most open, widely used assistant on the market. Another star of the show was the connected car. At times you could have fooled yourself into thinking you were at an auto show, what with the worldwide premier of a self-driving, plug-in hybrid concept called the Peugeot Instinct. “Autolivery” vans with drones launching from their roofs buzzed about the Ford City of Tomorrow, and AT&T built a Connected Car Showroom that featured everything from connected dashboards to big rigs harnessing fleet telematics. 

 

In the money

 

Snap's competitors continue launching an all-out assault on its business model and most popular features. Facebook, for example, just launched a Snapchat Stories clone called Messenger Day. The feature lives within Messenger and allows users to create a 24-hour window into their world. What they hope to get done that day, where they’re headed next. These photos and videos (collected via Messenger’s new camera) can then serve as fodder for conversations in Messenger and tools to enable people to meet up and better coordinate their days. Facebook says it will probably integrate ads into Messenger Day down the road.

 

Instagram launched a Snapchat Geostickers clone called — wait for it — Instagram Geostickers. If you haven’t seen these geostickers before, think of them as little tags that can be dragged and dropped onto any photo, offering location information and other funny visual enhancements. Instagram is debuting the geostickers in New York City and Jakarta, for use in the Instagram Stories feed.

 

Newcomer Gobi raised $500,000 in an attempt to take on Snapchat Stories with a more focused, group-based appeal. Gobi lets users create stories and share them with specific groups of friends — your college buddies, your colleagues at work, the group of friends you play soccer in the park with every weekend. The group can add photos or videos and also can provide feedback, say on the new pair of soccer cleats you’re trying on at the store. The app already has 70,000 users.

 

 

In other news

 

Back to Barcelona. While phones weren’t the stars of the show, plenty of phones still showed up. Oddly the most eye-grabbing of them came from Nokia with the relaunch of its 17-year-old feature phone the 3310. The phone has no WiFi and no touchscreen; it's fanciest feature is that old classic game Snake, and yet there it was attracting more attention than LG and its brand new G6. It's symptomatic of consumers' larger ennui with the lack of smartphone innovation in recent years. HMD Global, which now licenses the Nokia brand, is hoping the phone will be a hit in developing and underdeveloped countries and will help restore some swagger to the Nokia brand.

 

A second phone that got a lot of attention was another throwback, in this case the BlackBerry KEYone. The phone features BlackBerry’s signature QWERTY keyboard and a touchscreen above. It's like the BlackBerry Priv from 2015 but there's no sliding required to access the keyboard. TCL, which now licenses the BlackBerry brand for smartphones, is hoping that a mix of nostalgia and touchscreen typing fatigue can bolster performance where past BlackBerry headsets have failed. Price point is set at $500.

 

The biggest flagship reveal came from LG with its new GS smartphone. The phone boasts a waterproof exterior and a split screen option that allows users to run multiple apps on the display at the same time. The phone also has Dolby Vision HDR, which enhances video playback with a greater range of colors and contrasts — a point that LG belabored for nearly half an hour at its press conference. Whether these features are enough to make it a real contender with the Samsung Galaxy S8 or the iPhone X is up to consumers.

 

Speaking of Samsung, the company hasn’t taken the wrapping off its S8 yet, but it did announce in Barcelona that the big reveal is set for March 28. The phone will include a near all-screen design with no home button, rather sensors underneath the glass that read a fingerprint. The phone will also be waterproof. As for fireproof, Samsung can only hope after its Galaxy Note 7 debacle.

 

Samsung also introduced a wireless touch controller for its Gear VR headset. Think of it as a magician’s wand, ergonomically curved to the shape of a human hand and outfitted with buttons and a trigger for gaming purposes. Virtual reality devices remain a niche product, but for those who use the Gear VR, the controller is a game changer, as it eliminates the need to maneuver your hand up to the touchscreen on the Gear VR headset every time you want to make a selection or move about a screen.

 

Finally, a contingent of mobile communications companies announced their collective support for the acceleration of the 5G New Radio (NR) standardization, with plans to enable large-scale trials and deployments as early as 2019. Those companies included AT&T, SK Telecom, Vodafone, Ericsson, Qualcomm, Inc., British Telecom, Intel, Huawei, Sprint and Deutsche Telekom.

 

Qualcomm announced that its first round of 5G NR trials is about to get underway in collaboration with Vodafone and Ericcson in the U.K. The company had a prototype of its 5G technology on hand at its booth and used it to show how 5G will help unleash the next mobile revolution, with connectivity speeds up to 10 times faster than 4G. This will help the mobile industry meet the growing connectivity needs for emerging broadband experiences like virtual and augmented reality. 

 

The Mobile Digest is a biweekly lowdown on the world of mobile, combining Open Mobile Media analysis with information from industry press releases.

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to Open Mobile Media.