One of the best things about coming to Mobile World Congress is getting away from the cold, dreary weather in London and much of the US to spend a few days on the sunny and pleasant Mediterranean coast of Spain.
The 2018 show started off that way, but Barcelona on Tuesday, like much of Europe, was hit by frigid weather, thanks to Siberian weather that even brought a light dusting of snow.
But we come to Mobile World Congress for the phones, so with heavier coats than usual, we pushed on to find what was happening. And as it turned out, there was a lot of news to tell. From Samsung to a banana phone to 5G, here are the big stories from Barcelona that give some clues as to what we’ll see from wireless in 2018.
Galaxy S9 takes over everything
Where does the 8,000 pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants to.
Samsung came to Barcelona to win. And with its announcement of the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus phones shaping up to be two top handsets for 2018, win it did.
It didn’t matter that the devices only offer a minor upgrade over last year’s models, or that two iPhone X copycat features fell flat (seriously, what was it thinking with AR Emoji and Face Unlock?). A flashy presentation, high-end specs and bold new colors were enough to whip up excitement and suck out all the oxygen at the show, leaving only Nokia phones to fight for recognition.
Even MWC stalwarts LG and Huawei essentially bowed out, rather than risk their flagship phones being swallowed whole by the Samsung hype machine. Instead, LG launched a variant of the V30, a phone that already exists, and Huawei showed up with two Android tablets, teasing the press conference for its upcoming marquee phone for March.
BlackBerry, which used the show to stage its comeback in 2017, was oddly silent but promised future moves. HTC and Motorola, both of which hosted large launches in the past, were MIA this year.
Everyone’s talking about 5G
It’s almost here! Over the last three years, 5G has progressed from a lot of hype and grand promises to actually becoming a reality. If the Galaxy S9 dominated all other phones at the show, 5G dominated the conversation.
AT&T, which already promised a dozen cities with 5G by the end of the year, said a few days ahead of MWC that the first three cities to get the next-generation service would be Dallas, Atlanta and Waco, Texas. Sprint on Tuesday upped the ante by naming six cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas, getting 5G. A few hours later, T-Mobile topped them all by promising that 30 cities, including New York and Dallas (AT&T’s headquarters, by the way), would get 5G this year. Verizon hasn’t provided much details, but Chief Technology Officer Hans Vestberg said he expects to beat everyone on both fixed and mobile 5G services.
“You have to say you’re doing it, otherwise you’re seen as a laggard,” said Dan Hays, a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
But a word of warning: You won’t actually be able to access Sprint or T-Mobile’s 5G service until next year — when the first 5G-capable smartphones are slated to arrive. You’ll be able to use a Wi-Fi hotspot to tap into AT&T’s network.
Some of the show’s biggest booths are put up by the network equipment makers like Ericsson and Huawei, so they were geeking out over 5G even more.
iPhone X copycats
Imitation, as the say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and Mobile World Congress proved that adage with iPhone X copycats. Though taken design from a competitor is hardly new in the phone world, sometimes it lurches into outright cloning.
Take the Asus Zenfone 5. Though it’s larger than the iPhone X, there’s distinctly familiar “notch” at the top of the screen, it has curved metal edges, and the rear dual camera is an iPhone X doppelganger.
Asus CEO Jerry Shen says his the Zenfone 5 will differ from the iPhone X in a few important ways: Its notch is bigger and it will have a far more affordable price than the phone from “the fruit company” (that’s how only Shen would refer to Apple).
Meanwhile, while Huawei and LG were keeping a low profile at the show, they were apparently showing their next big handsets behind closed doors. They’re already all over the web, of course, thanks to phone leaker extraordinaire Evan Blass. And guess what? If the leaked photos are accurate, the upcoming Huawei P20 and LG G7 also feature an X-style notch, too.
Notch envy goes beyond big players like Asus, Huawei and LG, too. We spotted a handful of smaller companies also playing the imitation game. Take Leagoo, a manufacturer we’d heretofore never heard of that appears to be based in China. Its S9 phone is an iPhone copycat with a Galaxy S9 copycat name (killing two birds with one stone, we guess). It too has a notch above a nearly bezel-less display.
Creativity isn’t dead
Phones these days are all black rectangles, right? Well, not exactly. HMD Global, the Finnish company that owns the Nokia brand, stormed into Barcelona with a new edition of one of its most famous phones from the 1990s, the 8110 “banana phone.” Also called, “the Matrix phone,” because it appeared in the 1999 film, the 8110 has the same sliding case that you flick open and snap shut. Features are minimal, which is the point, but now there’s a color display and 4G support.
Nokia’s nostalgia trip is nothing new. You may remember that HMD took Mobile World Congress by storm last year (when Samsung largely skipped the show), with the reissue of the Nokia 3310. Is it a bananas move? Not quite, says Katie Collins. As she says, people are clamoring for something different than a black rectangle, and the 8110 is more about fun. The 8110 won’t be coming to the United States for the time being, though. Americans will get the new Nokia 6, but not through carrier partners.
Creativity also lurked in the Apex concept phone from Vivo. It has a selfie camera that pops up from the phone’s top edge. Is it practical? Maybe not, but it’s fun. It also has an in-screen fingerprint scanner for two prints — an improvement from the single-finger in-screen scanner the company showed off just weeks ago at CES — and OLED panels that vibrate to create the sound for your videos, calls and gaming.
Betting on AI
Artificial intelligence was another major theme at the show, even if the term has different definitions based on who you ask. Huawei hooked up its Mate 10 Pro smartphone to a Porsche, essentially turning it into a self-driving car. The experiment wasn’t about Huawei getting into the autonomous car business, but to demonstrate how its Kirin 970 processor was smart enough to recognize objects like dogs and soccer balls.
LG offered a slight — really slight — upgrade to its LG V30S ThinQ (pronounced “thin-cue”) and focused on more AI capabilities like the ability for the camera to recognize the object in front of it (sound familiar?) and optimize the settings for the best picture.
It follows along LG’s big focus on AI for other products like televisions and washing machines.
Network equipment makers like Nokia also talked about how AI will be critical for — what else? — 5G. AI will be able to direct mobile traffic zipping across at a rate that’s far faster than a human can react, or be able to automatically detect and repair problems with the network.
Net neutrality debate goes overseas
You know you’re going to get fireworks when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai shows up. Pai, a controversial figure for his move to dismantle the existing US net neutrality laws, should’ve had an easy time with his keynote address at the show. After all, he’s surrounded by telecom executives, and their calls for less regulation are as reliable as a rooster call at sunrise.
But his speech was preceded by Andrus Ansip, EU commissioner for the union’s Digital Single Market and a staunch net neutrality supporter who talked up the rules in Europe. After their respective individual comments, there was a polite back-and-forth between the two men.
The rules are scheduled to be repealed on April 23, but the fight is just getting started. This week, it happened to spill into Barcelona.