MWC 2017: The next step of technology evolution

MWC 2017: The next step of technology evolution
The Mobile World Congress always gives us a sneak peek into what the future of technology looks like. So, what's caught the attention of the tech world this year? Brian Coombs, Product Director at Cerillion who was on-site at MWC, sums up the event.

It felt great to be back at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in the vibrant city of Barcelona. If last year was about new technologies rearing their heads, this year was about showcasing new use cases built on top of these technologies.

There is a growing feeling among the tech media that MWC isn't about the mobile anymore. Well, I only partially agree on that one. I still think that mobile is a huge piece, but MWC has evolved over the years with a greater focus on connectivity than hardware. This year there were the usual product launches by dozens of Chinese manufacturers. However, there was no device or feature that really stood out from among its peers. When every device does more or less the same thing, the underlying products are relegated to nothing more than a commodity.

Perhaps this justifies “The Next Element” as the theme for MWC 2017? Since mobile is just so fundamental to the way the world works now, it might as well be considered an element. However, there were some interesting trends that are worth talking about.

If the Internet of Things (IoT) got everyone jumping off their seats last year, this year was all about Artificial Intelligence (AI). In fact, AI and automation was the closest thing to a main theme at MWC and there were some exciting demos by technology players which showcased AI-driven products. It can now be firmly said that mobile AI is surging ahead from the era of smart digital assistants to a stage where the emphasis is on machines that learn and identify patterns in data sets.

You had robots, running over ‘5G’, picking and stacking boxes; smart cars taking decisions for themselves; and software solutions such as chat bots and analytics making life more efficient for users. It seems that everything is on its way to getting smarter and more connected. 
A good example of all this was the convergence of PayPal and Jaguar. While it may seem a bit pointless at this time, imagine a scenario where your car pulls up at the petrol pump (either on its own or with you driving) and the pump then automatically inserts itself using a combination of sensors and AI. The car and pump then communicate with each other to determine the fuel requirements of your car, and when you’re done, the car pays the garage and away you go. All of this done without the need for you to even get out of your car. That's what true AI does – it makes life simple and more efficient! 

Virtual Reality came a close second, following the commercial launches of the three main VR headsets earlier this year.  So there was some sort of VR technology used on almost every booth for product launches, brand awareness or purely for entertainment purposes. But what really got me excited were the first signs of people putting their minds to it and coming up with genuine business use cases.

The VR technology that particularly stood out was the HTC Vive and its full-body immersion simulator. Stepping inside the brain or a heart, and then introducing a disease and treating it, was a real eye opener and a potentially amazing learning tool for medical students. With such cases and more, we are probably now looking at ideas that can genuinely be taken to the market and make a difference.

IoT, on the other hand, was not so much of a story in itself this year. The discussions around IoT just didn't revolve around machines or their ability to communicate with each other. Sure, there were the usual IoT gizmos such as drones and other cool gadgets. But again, the buzz was around businesses that could genuinely take an interesting idea into the mainstream. I had several interesting conversations with people putting IoT-powered devices out there and looking for a billing & charging platform to use with it.

In addition, the 5G hype machine continued to gain traction. Right from telcos to technology enthusiasts, everyone seemed to be working on it. Moreover, everyone claimed to have the fastest working demo! But if you look beyond the hype, we are realistically at least two years away from the first real application. Higher speeds, lower latency and greater energy efficiency are some factors that make 5G the most anticipated technology ever.

For some, 5G holds the promise of a utopian world with technology-enabled smart cities, IoT-powered smart factories and automated cars without steering wheels. But then again, just like any other nascent technology, it is all talk without too much substance at this stage. Has the technology generated enough buzz to encourage long-term capital investment? Has any telecom player thought of a viable business model for monetising 5G? There will be big challenges ahead and I expect to see people asking us much more pressing questions about the charging and billing aspects of 5G over the next 12-18 months.

At times, MWC even felt like a car show, with smart car prototypes, automated driving technology and theatrical demos. A few of the stands felt like a genuine glimpse into the future.  The ironic part, though, was that even technology, in its quest for perfection, sometimes fails to produce the desired results. As I walked around MWC, I left my location services switched on and my phone connected to all the microcells around the exhibition. Since these microcells were backhauled to whichever part of the world the exhibitor came from, my activity tracker app actually thought I’d invented a new form of supersonic travel. How else could you get from Barcelona to Taiwan, via London, Paris, Austria and Tokyo and back within a couple of hours?!

Key takeaway - technology is smart, but not smart enough yet!