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Waiting for the Next Element

Mobile World Congress 2017 showcased a host of innovative gadgets and prompted some major 5G announcements, but in its timing it caught the telecoms industry at an uncertain point in its development.

I went, I saw, I listened and I enjoyed fighting those Zombies with my VR goggles on.

I learnt that “Buffer Face” is a thing, and that the frustration people experience when videos buffer on their smartphones is recognised by the industry as one of the major impediments to the user experience.

I saw innumerable new handsets, all touting themselves as the high point in innovation even though they all looked the same, and were mostly all using the same operating system.

My favourite? The Nokia 3310. Does that say more about me and my certain vintage, does it speak to the maturity of the handset industry that it can now go retro, or does that point to a dearth of design innovation in current offerings?

I tramped the halls of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona for a week with more than 100,000 other people, and while it’s a great show full of the best our industry has to offer I was left with some unanswered questions.

Firstly, I need to confess this was my first trip to MWC. My recent career has been in other areas of business writing, so I am not a seasoned MWC warrior like so many of my friends and colleagues.

Perhaps it is always like this, but the overwhelming impression was that this is an industry in flux, waiting and preparing for the advent of the new world of 5G, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things but still not quite sure of how that will look, and which will be the companies to profit.

Car companies had stands in the Innovation Hall next to payments companies, indicative of the breadth of human activity which is being funnelled into the new connected infrastructure.

When the chairman of the Barcelona Football Club got up to speak, I momentarily thought he was announcing the club was becoming a technology company, or an MVNO.

So many unanswered questions, not just around business models and if old style carriers can transform and survive.

The big question is around security. The idea of robotic racing cars with electronic engines competing against human drivers is one thing, but no-one was able to coherently answer the question of what we could do to ensure that the IoT world was safe from cyber attack.

Even Eugene Kaspersky told us that we needed to go back to the drawing board and build the blocks of the new security world virtually from scratch. If he’s correct, we are right to be worried.

The idea of the billions of IoT connected devices dancing to the tune of a Dr Evil style cyber-criminal is unfortunately not so ridiculous, and I didn’t leave the conference feeling entirely safe.

The very name of the MWC event – the “Next Element” – evokes the idea of waiting and anticipating what is to come.

These technologies take a long time to develop and mature, so maybe it is always this way at MWC and perhaps nothing unusual.

But I didn’t come away with a clear picture of the point the industry is heading for. I saw and industry developing brilliant new technologies, but still unsure of the impact they were going to have on the world and on creating sustainable businesses.

Perhaps that Next Element will arrive over the next 12 months, in time for MWC2018. If that is the case, I look forward to identifying it then.