That stands for Mobile World Congress; it happens in early spring in Barcelona, and it’s mammoth; something like 75,000 people show up to wheel and deal.They’re wheeling and dealing for big bucks; the mobile industry is huge and for four days almost everyone is here. I’ve got no inside information on the nature of the deals the telcos make, with handset makers and antenna engineers and backhaul builders. But here’s where they make ’em; almost every booth has “executive meeting rooms”, and one of the eight huge halls is nothing but hospitality suites and meetings.
What MWC is like · Big. Did I mention “eight huge halls”? Also, glossy, also exhausting.
I found much of it boring. Partly, I just don’t care about mobile technology at any level much below the apps you run on the devices. Partly, the devices from the big companies all look like the other devices from the other big companies: Thin, black, and running a recent Android.
Notably, there were no public displays either from Google or Apple. Google had a big splashy Android booth for a couple years, but no longer, and Apple’s never shown up.
So here’s the non-boring stuff I took away.
Trend: UI metaphors · If you’re trying to flog a new OS, it’s tough; there’s nothing terribly wrong with either of the incumbents (iOS and Android) and Microsoft is trying to elbow Windows Phone into any space that’s not already occupied.
So the alt-OS folk are talking up alt-UI metaphors, many of which seem to be about side-dragging; to go Home, to get a menu, to do whatever. This is good!
Trend: Augmented Reality · There were bits of it here and there in the little booths at the edges of the halls. The notion is that if you look at the world through a mobile device you might see a different, augmented world. It’s a powerful idea — well, it excites me anyhow. Unfortunately the technology is Just Not There yet. But keep an eye on it.
Trend: No network · At a shocking number of booths, the devices on display were not on the Net, which is to say dead to me. But there was decent cellular signal, so I used a hotspot on my N5 to put the interesting devices through their paces.
Trend: Booth bunnies · I talked to a person who works for the GSMA (they put on MWC) and she told me there was now a no-booth-bunnies policy. When I was last there in 2011, the big Asian handset makers’ booths were a sea of miniskirts and cleavage. Yeah, the booth-bunny field strength is declining. But it’s hard to fight; lots of booths had good-looking well-groomed young women who looked blank when I asked them basic questions about Android versions or whatnot. Still, there is progress.
Now, not all the devices were boring; here are the ones that caught my eye.
Device: LG Flex · This is a huge handset with a deep, sweeping curve. I pulled up a few of my blog photos and I have to say the Cinerama effect made ’em look great. I gotta wonder how it’ll fit into the average pocket though.
Device: Yotaphone · This thing comes from somewhere on the right of the European map; it’s a reasonably ordinary Android phone, only with an E-Ink display on the back, suitable for reading books or pulling up your boarding-pass barcode.
Of course, Android doesn’t have APIs for an E-Ink back panel so there’s work to be done. But check the picture: When I ran Google Music, some software happenstance threw the now-playing display up on the E-ink.
Still at a pretty early stage; “For sale in retail!” they insisted, but hardly a household name yet. Does it have legs? Beats me, but at least it’s different.
Device: Samsung watch · I haven’t really been paying much attention to the wrist wearables because the idea struck me as lame; but I have to say this one Samsung thing (I think it was the Gear Fit) impressed me. It’s narrow not wide; the display and band integrate smoothly, the display really pops out at you with contrast and resolution, and the main control gesture is swiping along the display/band surface; this feels natural and the display is super-responsive.
I might actually consider one, depending on the price point.
Device: Firefox phones · They were running on Nexus devices but there are actual Firefox phones in retail and more in the pipeline. They’ve put some real thought into the UX controls and if they can get an app ecosystem going, they could be a force. Of course, that ecosystem would presumably be HTML5-based, so they’re not starting from zero.
Device: Oppo phones · Here’s a picture of an Oppo N1.
The big deal on the hardware is the camera, which is in the swiveling thingie at the phone’s top. I didn’t try it, but a camera you can point doesn’t sound insane.
I thought the other big deal was that they ran Cyanogen, but the display was all about “ColorOS”. I asked the not-quite-a-booth-bunny and she said oh yes, you could run Cyanogen too. Also, the phone in the picture is compatible, i.e. running Google apps; but the one I fooled around with wasn’t, except for it had Chrome. It was super-snappy and responsive. There were other Oppo devices too, they all looked pretty nice.
Devices: Children of Meego · I thought Tizen was the Meego successor. There was a Tizen booth, showing it running on some nice-looking phones and tablets; the software felt pretty shaky, starting with the browser; I wonder what that was?
But I also talked to the Jolla people, who told me their “Sailfish OS” was a Meego-ish thing. They’re another outfit that are working hard on novel-UI stuff; for example, check out the example on the right. The big deal here is that 100% of the surface is used for the payload, there’s no UI apparatus visible at all. Want UI? Grab that golden glow at the top and you get all the usual stuff.
They also had a reasonably persuasive line of talk about having optimized the UI for one-hand operation. Speaking as a guy who often walks around with a computer or shopping bag or whatever in my left hand, that’s a potentially very attractive feature in a handset. Optimized for texting-while-driving, they didn’t say.
Not my tribe · I had trouble finding conversations about software, which is what I care about. Also the whole thing was exhausting. I probably won’t go back to MWC unless it’s to help negotiate a deal with someone. But that’s the point.