MWC2019 and the evolving role of smartphones

Thomas Husson/Forrester Research

For the first time in 15 years, I will not attend Mobile World Congress (MWC).

When I mentioned this to some clients, some of them told me, “Yes, you’re right: Mobile is dead. There is no innovation anymore. It is all about AI and blockchain these days.” I could not disagree more. The reason I am not flying to Barcelona this year is simply a personal reason and has nothing to do with the lack of mobile innovation.

On the contrary, I think mobile will activate many adjacent technologies at scale, such as augmented reality (AR) or conversational interfaces. There is a good reason why Google claims that its Google Assistant is available on more than 1 billion devices while Amazon refers to 100-million-plus Alexa-connected devices.

Consumers today are more likely to use voice assistants on a smartphone than on a smart home speaker (even if this category is exploding). The same is true for AR. We will increasingly see standalone mixed-reality headsets, and it is likely that Microsoft will announce HoloLens 2 in Barcelona. The next headset is likely to improve aspects such as field of view and bring more advanced controls, as well as eye tracking.

In November 2018, Microsoft won over Magic Leap a $480 million contract to supply the US Army with HoloLens headsets. Having said that, the vast majority of consumers will experience augmented reality though the camera lens of their smartphones. It is still early days for AR, but we will soon pass the 1 billion AR-compatible smartphone mark. With AR becoming a platform play with ARKit and ARCore, many brands will start to create new storytelling experiences.

Beyond extended reality and voice interfaces, it is likely that we will also continue to see lots of innovation in AI-powered smartphones and in visual search. My colleague Dipanjan Chatterjee recently shared five brand ideas from his trip to CES in Las Vegas. For CMOs, MWC is also definitely still a place to be, rich with innovation ideas, new brand experiences, and conversations about the future of marketing. In fact, I’d argue that most brands claim they are mobile-first, but the reality is that many are not (they think content and not context), and even if they were, mobile-first is not enough. Beyond the design principle, it is urgent to think of mobile as a catalyst for contextual marketing.

Right, but some rightly argue that with the evolution of new technologies such as voice and facial recognition, the role of smartphones will evolve. Why do you need a touchscreen to activate an experience if you can simply command through your voice in your home or in your car? Do you still need your phone to prove your identity if you can combine facial recognition and cloud computing to securely access certain services? I agree that the role of mobile in our daily lives will evolve in the next five to 10 years, but in the next couple of years, mobile will remain the hub of our connected experiences. It will progressively act less as a remote control initiating experiences and less as an identity layer connecting the dots between our connected worlds. That’s why we will see greater emphasis on screens, especially on foldable screens.

Of course, this will, as always, be the Asian device fashion week with the new spring/summer device collection: the Samsung Galaxy S10 range (to be announced in San Francisco right before the event on February 20), new Huawei phones, the OnePlus 7, Sony’s Xperia XZ4, the LG G8 and LG V50 ThinQ, and many others, including the Nokia 9 PureView.

The real buzz this year, however, will be all about 5G and foldable phones.

But for what consumer benefits? This is still quite unclear to me:

  • It is likely that top smartphone brands will claim to have reinvented smartphone design because of foldable phones and screens. However, it will take longer for these foldable screens to reinvent the smartphone category and deliver differentiated experiences. In the longer run, though, it is likely that foldable screens will accelerate the convergence between smartphones, tablets, and laptops, progressively unleashing a new form factor.
  • There is also no denying that 5G is the infrastructure of the connected world. That’s precisely the reason why it is at the center of the economic and political war between the US and China. However, the reality is that it will take another five to seven years before it reaches critical mass among consumers in most countries. Telcos and network equipment providers should learn lessons from 3G and 4G rollouts and not overpromise the technology. While we will hear a lot about the first 5G smartphones, the challenge is also to simultaneously roll out the infrastructure, and it will take time, especially in Europe, where spectrum allocation remains a mess at a country level.

CMOs: Forget about 5G and foldable screens for now, and focus on fixing your mobile foundations.

Thomas Husson is vice president, principal Analyst at Forrester Research

This blog originally appeared on Forrester Research website and can be found here

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