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The Mobile World Congress: first impressions and general musings from a powerhouse event

March 6th, 2017 |  Published in Mobile World Congress 2017



Gregory P. Bufithis, Esq. Founder/CEO



6 March 2017 – This is the busiest part of my year as far as tech conferences because it is front-loaded with back-to-back-to-back events over an 8 week period:

  • the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland;
  • the international Cybersecurity Forum in Lille, in Lille, France;
  • the CPDP (Computers, Privacy and Data Protection) conference in Brussels, Belgium;
  • the legal technology conference putatively called “Legaltech” in NYC;
  • the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany;
  • the annual Pentagon Cyber workshop in Washington, DC; and
  • the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona which ended last week

Yes, I am an opsimath at heart but I think everything in technology is related and that schedule provides me perspective and a holistic tech education. Call it my personal “Theory of Everything”. Although if you are not careful you can find yourself going through a mental miasma with all this overwhelming tech.

And this year was especially challenging because I added two new video teams to cover all the action, one now based in Barcelona and one based in Paris. Barcelona has become a center for major tech conferences besides MWC and there is much to cover, and Paris is becoming a hub for cyber security events.

Now, the hard part … video editing time and detailed blog posts. Our teams have nothing scheduled until the International Journalism Festival next month in Perugia, Italy, and the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June – both global events for those working in the news media, creative communications field, advertising world, and related fields. It is where our teams have learned the most about the impact of technology, the visualization of data, creativity, and how to create a high level of quality storytelling.

We shot 30 hours of film at MWC this year and the editing has begun but herein some first impressions and general musings on MWC …. 

I am still damned impressed with our transformation into device people – how it happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007 (we are celebrating its 10th birthday), followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago.

“If only I had thought to take my damn phone with me; I could have gotten some work done”

Not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age. What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? We wouldn’t be always clutching smartphones if we didn’t believe they made us safer, more productive, less bored, and were useful in all of the ways that a computer in your pocket can be useful.

And as far as that old canard “Don’t you see?! Smartphones make us distracted!  We don’t talk to each other anymore!!” :


The Mobile World Congress is 4 days of official conference … Monday through Thursday … but each year there seems to be more formal and informal events to attend and see on the Sunday before and lots of “after meetings” on Friday. I had a 4-person team covering the event and it still was not enough 🙂  This year there were 108,000+ attendees, with 2,900 exhibitors plus 167+ educational sessions.

Yes, there are panels and training sessions (the mobile forensics classes and mobile security classes are brilliant) and keynotes. But those panels and keynotes are in the background, not the main event.  MWC is a proper trade show – most people are here to do business, network, discuss deals, meet with press, and socialize. The booths are big and (mostly) devoid of Booth Babes and well-staffed but the real work is in the scores of meeting rooms, and at the dinners and parties.  As my chums from Nokia always say “the Mobile World Congress really runs from 6 p.m. to 4 am”.    And look … it’s Barcelona and it’s beautiful outside.

The event always offers all the delights our team has come to expect – gracious hosts, a brilliant team from GSMA which runs the event, fabulous restaurants and stunning venues … and a great subway and train system. For my earlier piece on MWC … “Now THIS is the way to run a technology conference” … click here.

Some first impressions and general musings:

1. Big Themes

Kevin Burden, an analyst at 451 Research, made an insightful comment on his blog over the weekend. He said 2016 wasn’t a great year for many telecomm companies, so many of their booths featured exhibits on emerging technologies in an attempt to find new lines of business. As he noted, visitors saw smart city tech at Verizon and AT&T, for example, and even augmented reality and virtual reality displays. And both wireless carriers also showed how they are now content providers.

Because let’s forget the robots, the connected cars, the virtual reality rides and all the 5G devices and shiny new things: Content is still king, the most important king. Said Vice Media CEO Shane Smith in his keynote: “What are you going to fill the pipes with? All of the data and algorithms in the world can only take you so far. Content has to be reimagined for the always on, multiple screen world in which the same viewer might want to watch Michael Phelps win a gold medal, find out his age, see who he is dating and then tweet about it all a few seconds later”.

As Smith noted the key is not just engaging content. The key is to make it exclusive or at least unique. No one wants a duplicate of content available everywhere else. If your mobile strategy is to essentially resell Netflix, he said, “it’s stupid and it will not take you where you want to go.”

But a bigger theme/trend/whatever that will spill beyond mobile is … Amazon.

In the new digital assistant line up, Alexa responds better than Cortana and Siri, because it can provide better and more intelligent services than a smartphone based app. As an Amazon product, as with Amazon Web Services, developers can learn how to build apps and other products for Alexa. HeroTurko has actually created a learning tutorial for interested Alexa developers. This is big stuff because, as tech analyst Stephen Arnold opined over the weekend “voice-based apps are a growing sector in the technology industry and will only get bigger as the demand for voice-controlled technology increases”.

The biggest industries in technology are surrounded by AI, Bots, and voice technology. Voice technology WILL BE the new 21st user interface that will not only understand basic commands, but will be so smart to understand anything you tell it. This is why Amazon is making a big bet with Alexa, which it plans to generate close to $11 billion dollars by 2020 (based on last Friday’s earnings report).

We have seen this all before. Learn these skills now before the mainstream starts developing applications. We all know the story about apps for the smartphones; this is the same thing.

2. Mobile security Yes, a big element of the show. A lot to digest. But one cool bit I learned from a chap who was with the United States Cyber Command (providing much sanitized versions of background briefs on what they did, issues with cybersecurity, etc.) :  every morning the Pentagon must clear 65,000 people through various entrances, all within 3 hours.  The example was used in describing the various levels of security, when and where they were needed, etc.  At the “front door” you are not going to do a badge check-fingerprint check-retina check and get those 65,000 people through the gates in 3 hours.  And security passes have multiple embeds depending on where you work in the Pentagon.  And yes, James Mattis, the current Secretary of Defense, has his own very special security badge unique to him.

There were scores of vendors discussing a myriad of topics … mobile identity verification, physical and logical access, ID cards, etc. … and how all of this fits in the specific mobile requirements of different industries including telecoms, healthcare, manufacturing and utilities. I even got to download some very cool security software on my iPhone. And in all of our discussions about mobile security and identity security the emphasis was “we need to talk about making in safer, not safe“. There are no absolutes. As the adoption of smartphones has skyrocketed, the threat of someone stealing the personal data stored on your mobile phone is acute. Every single platform is exposed to this, no platform is immune. Some are safer than others, but none are immune.

One major solution we learned about to beef up security within an organisation comes in the form of intelligent mobile device management (MDM). MDM enables companies to apply the same level of mobile security not only at a device level but also at the application and network tiers. This makes it much easier for IT departments to identify potential threats and adjust security risk levels accordingly. Another plus point of MDM is its ability to detect devices that don’t meet pre-determined security standards.

3. mHealth

My major focus this year was mobile and mHealth.  mHealth is an abbreviation for mobile health, a term used for the practice of medicine and public health supported by mobile devices. The term is most commonly used in reference to using mobile communication devices, such as mobile phones, tablet computers and PDAs, for health services and information, but also to affect emotional state.  The mHealth field has emerged as a sub-segment of eHealth, the use of information and communication technology (ICT), such as computers, mobile phones, communications satellite, patient monitors, etc., for health services and information. mHealth applications include the use of mobile devices in collecting community and clinical health data, delivery of healthcare information to practitioners, researchers, and patients, real-time monitoring of patient vital signs, and direct provision of care (via mobile telemedicine).

Healthcare systems world-wide are entering a new phase: ever-increasing quantities of complex, massively multivariate data concerning all aspects of patient care are starting to be routinely acquired and stored, throughout the life of a patient, and increasingly involving mobile settings. This exponential growth in data quantities far outpaces the capability of clinical experts to cope, resulting in a so-called “data deluge” in which mobile data are largely unexploited.

There is huge potential for using advances in machine learning methodologies … all on display at MWC … to exploit the contents of these complex mobile datasets by performing robust, scalable, automated inference to improve healthcare outcomes significantly by using patient-specific probabilistic models, a field in which there is growing research, and which promises to develop into a new industry supporting the next generation of mobile healthcare technology.

And one big take-away: to get a firm grasp on this huge, complex area start with David Doherty’s blog mHealth Insight. He had a pre-Mobile World Congress blog post that proved invaluable for the event.

4. Ah, the lawyers

As I have noted in my previous years coverage, the event is always packed with Legal Directors and in-house counsel, a number of whom I have known for years.

We talked about Huawei’s rise to global prominence – put dramatically on display with hundreds of journalists checking out the company’s new, higher-priced smartphone. It is doing well in Asia and Europe, but as for the U.S. … it will be challenged in the U.S. partly because of the difficulties of taking on successful companies like Samsung and Apple that are willing to take on newcomers with lawsuits over patent infringement and other tactics.

And we picked up a thread we started last year on mobile payment program agreements, and the new partnership arrangements … the payments space has crossed traditional industry dividing lines with financial institutions partnering with e-commerce companies, retailers partnering with payment networks and banks outsourcing development of new consumer products and services to software providers. This leads to a need for partners to define their regulatory obligations. And consumer data ownership and use is almost always a major point of discussion as sometimes partners are interested in participating in a program more for the opportunity to better understand consumers than for direct financial benefits. And this payments technology changes so quickly, and the regulatory environment continues to develop, that lawyers need to be on their toes.

5. 5G

Man, it was everywhere.  Last year after MWC 2016 I produced a short video explaining 5G and noted there were 6-8 companies with test versions out there.  This year … well, those test versions have been a wee bit expanded:

The 5G hype machine was in full swing at MWC.  It was “just around the corner” and it’s going to “revolutionize our smartphone experience”. We’ll be able to download libraries of 4K High Dynamic Range movies in less than a second, upload our entire camera rolls to Facebook in the blink of an eye, stream incredible live VR events in real time …. etc., etc.

But a more sober look reveals that the networks are not anywhere near ready. The International Telecommunication Union had released its draft report on 5G specifications just a few days ago before MWC. It suggested that a single cell must have a minimum download capacity of 20GB per second, that the standard needs to support up to 1 million devices in a square kilometer, and that carriers must have at least 100MHz of free spectrum, but ideally 1GHz.

As Simon Hill (an excellent analyst from Digital Trends) noted we are a long way away from that and to get there will be enormously expensive. In a blog post he queried:

  • Who is going to pay for it? The same carriers and operators that have taken so long to roll out 4G?
  • In the U.S., 4G LTE average speeds vary from carrier to carrier, but no one is averaging as much as 17Mbps yet, according to Open Signal. Shouldn’t we shoot for the upper end of 4G before we start hyping what is next?

And a key point: 5G is about more than speed.  Network upgrades have traditionally been focused on the amazing speed benefits we can enjoy but it seems that 5G is really about coping with exponential expansion of devices and data demands. It might be an umbrella term that actually encompasses a wide range of different technologies. For regular folks, it should provide seamless and fast connectivity for a growing variety of devices. More on this is a subsequent post.

6.  Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Artificial intelligence and machine learning were all over the joint and in full (hype) swing.

Yes, as I noted last year in my series on artificial intelligence and machine learning, we have the unknown on the run … but we need a sober eye when evaluating all of this.

And let me be clear: when I write about artificial intelligence (AI) it is not one technology but rather a group of related technologies – including natural language processing (improving  interactions between computers and human or “natural” languages); machine learning (computer programs that can “learn” when exposed to new data) and expert systems (software programmed to provide advice) – that help machines sense, comprehend and act in ways similar to the human brain.  These technologies are behind innovations such as virtual agents (computer-generated, animated characters serving as online customer service representatives); identity analytics (solutions combining big data and advanced analytics to help manage user access and certification) and recommendation systems (algorithms helping match users and providers of goods and services) which have already transformed the ways in which companies look at the overall customer experience – this later point on abundant display at MWC this year.

I will have a comprehensive post on the subject from the floor of the MWC with video interviews but herein a few points (and let me note here much of this was discussed at the cyber conference in Lille and the Munich Security Conference, both noted at the beginning of this post):

  • we saw artificial intelligence capable of calculating the statistical, current, and predictive safety and risk for any given location in real-time
  • we also saw how several vendors can monitor mass volumes of data from multiple sources, detecting incident categories such as crime, terrorism, fire, natural forces, industrial disasters, or health-related risk
  • we also saw something called “adaptive scoring”. An example was a a luxury car might warn its owner who is about to park in an area with increased risk of vandalism or theft for this specific car brand
  • public authorities continue to struggle to cope with increasing complexity, pressure and budget constraints, and these trends have led to unprecedented and still surging global demand for new solutions. But it is only now … really in just the last 2 years … that we have seen an increase in data availability and decreasing cost of high-performance computing allowed for the implementation of many solutions

And we saw throughout MWC how these technologies are increasingly being applied in the banking industry, mainly toward knowledge management, identity authentication, market analysis, customer relationship management, anti-money laundering, and risk control.

I am a good “test case” for some of the more advanced applications. My bank in Belgium has a special AI app account that uses customer personalization, identity patterns and connections that provides me at the end of each month a summary of all my charges by type/store/amount (“Coffee/Starbucks/50 euros” and “Airline/Lufthansa/1,000 euros”) and then projects my upcoming monthly expenditures based on past consumption. For those of you with accounts via Barclays Bank, they are doing the same.

7.  Smart homes, IoT and all that jazz

Clearly much to say on this topic, but I will save that for a subsequent post.

Only one point here, discussed at length at the event. whoever owns the hub may very well own the retail. A study from Retail Systems Research showed that retailers are very bullish on the future of IoT. They are most excited about opportunities to interact with consumers via their mobile phones and even consumers’ own IoT devices (think wearables). For them, IoT is not about saving money. It’s about driving customer experience.

But if you had time to chat with a number of telcos and other mobile industry mavens you will learn how that ignores how the IoT ecosystem looks set to evolve. Retailers will in no way be at the center of the IoT ecosystem. You need to look, as an example, at how smart home technology is evolving: connected refrigerators, lights, ceiling fans, curtains, door locks – yeah, you name it. All of that stuff is increasingly connected via a management framework for all of those devices. Think “operating system for the smart home,” even though it’s a little more sophisticated than that.

And right now there are three main companies capable of carrying on a conversation with such smart devices: Apple, Google and Amazon. If you’re using Amazon’s Alexa, where do you think it’s going to be easiest to buy that milk your refrigerator says you need? You might not even consciously approve the order – when milk gets this low, Alexa will order it and Amazon Pantry will deliver.

When Google launched Home at I/O back in May 2016, the software giant was clearly gunning for Amazon Echo. In 2017, however, it’s Amazon that’s begun elbowing in on Google’s territory. At CES, Huawei announced plans to launch Alexa on the US version of its Mate 9 handset.

This week at Mobile World Congress, Motorola followed suit, inviting Amazon on stage to help unveil a partnership that will bring the company’s smart home assistant to its hardware moving forward, including, most notably, a Harman Kardon speaker Mod concept for the Moto Z that essentially transforms the phone into a portable Echo.

That same day, Google had a big announcement of its own: Assistant was getting a far wider mobile rollout, with the company bringing its AI to Android 6.0 and 7.0 devices featuring Google Play services. It’s a big step for a roll out that began life modestly with availability on the Pixel handset back in October.

Let the battle commence!!

8.  Mobile revenue streams

Would you want to see an ad when you unlocked your phone, if it cut your phone bill? Telcos have seen their revenues eaten away for years by “over-the-top” players-internet applications like Skype or Facebook Messenger that let users send messages and make calls online for free. Now telcos are showing signs of exploring the very revenue stream that made their internet brethren fat with profits: selling advertising.    

Before all these cool mobile features come out, we’ll get more ads

At MWC there was chat about how it’s important to understand how dire things are for the telcos. One analysis by research firm Ovum forecasts that telcos will lose 36% of their revenue to over-the-top services over the next decade. And that’s on top of losing hundreds of billions (yes, billions) in revenue from phone calls and text messages since 2012, Ovum has found: “The future isn’t bright anymore for any of the telco”.

Thus the turn to advertising as a revenue stream. Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo – yes, still on despite the hacking scandals Yahoo has suffered – is emblematic of the shift. As a chap from the advertising agency group WPP said the acquisition is “a third force” against a Google and Facebook duopoly on digital ads.

And, yes, telcos are wading in with some trepidation. People don’t want to see more ads, after all. At last year’s MWC I wrote about a startup named Shine which caused a stir with a declaration that it would help carriers block ads at the network level, meaning they would never even get delivered to your phone. This year Shine … SURPRISE!! … has rebranded itself Rainbow, and repositioned itself as a “creative verification” service for ads, meaning it’ll work with its carrier partner, Three in the UK, to check if an ad is particularly intrusive, and charge advertisers for analytics and other services.

Models like Shine’s are part of a trend toward “opt-in” mobile advertising that telcos seem to favor. Another startup taking this tack is Unlockd, an app that sometimes shows users an ad when they unlock their smartphones. In return for watching the ad they get special offers such as money off a phone bill. Unlockd white-labels the app to telcos, such as the UK’s Tesco Mobile; they brand it, get third-party ads on the app, and entice their subscribers to download it to get the discounts. More in a longer post to come on telecommunications revenue streams.

9. Smart cities

Some of the most promising/coolest technologies came from city government IT officials who have developed smart city concepts and pilots.

Far, far too much to report … the Good, the Bad, the Ugly … but it was enlightening to hear the chief technology officer of Barcelona mention the city has a portal to allow citizens to report government corruption. The deputy CIO of Moscow said the city has a pilot project underway to use artificial intelligence to detect lung cancer with 97% accuracy through computer analysis of CT scans.

10. Mobile payments

The area of mobile payment (also referred to as mobile money, mobile money transfer, and mobile wallet) generally refer to payment services operated under financial regulation and performed from or via a mobile device. Instead of paying with cash, cheque (or check), or credit cards, a consumer can use a mobile phone to pay for a wide range of services and digital or hard goods.

Although the concept of using non-coin-based currency systems has a long history,it is only recently that the technology to support such systems has become widely available.

I have a personal interest in this area because I am an investor in a mobile payment system in Africa. I will have a long blog post soon that will include videos interviews with several MWC vendors but just a few points:

  • in a GSMA poll at the event this year 39.2% of respondents said the mobile operators’ role should be to support banks and financial institutions, while 34.5% said operators are trusted payment providers in their own right
  • here are tons of different mobile payment apps and systems. Some run by banks, some built into devices and use hardware-based encryption, and others coming from companies that may have good intentions but lack the expertise to mitigate user mistakes or process loopholes.
  • more than that, mobile pay systems require a lot of upkeep. Minimum security standards change constantly as black-hats hack or reverse engineer the old ones.
  • there are many deployment models for mobile contactless payments and we will try to explore the main ones in a subsequent post.

11. And some miscellaneous stuff

Herein a few random data points (some of which will earn a post in the coming weeks):

The first implantable mobile phone will become commercially available in 2025

I think the most compelling use of virtual reality technology I saw was the demonstrations showcasing surgical simulation

  A bouy that will sense when a swimmer is in trouble and deploy a drone with a lifesaver

Millennials are eschewing traditional banking

One of the best sessions was a panel on how our habits that make us human make us so “hackable”. Photo is of Rebecca Cedering Ångström, Acting Head of Consumerlab, Ericsson. One example of the increasing diversity of sessions at MWC on “meaty” subjects

Yes.  Ok. Sometimes a wee bit of the “Internet of the Absurd”.  But vendors and the GSMA provided very comprehensive sessions on all aspects of the IoT (tech, security, social, legal, etc.) 

One of the more (amusing?) comments made by a data broker at the Congress: the Trump administration is better off BUYING a Muslim registry than building one. Data brokers have all that info!

The Snapchat initial public offering launched the last day of MWC, but many telecos/vendors had noted during the week that it had pioneered new ways to interact with photos, videos and other users, and there was “gold in them thar hills”

Some amazing advances in facial recognition software on display via several vendors

Keynote by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings: “Frankly, I don’t know whether Netflix will be entertaining humans or AI in 50 years time”

Digital by the numbers

Disney has invented a room that can wirelessly charge your gadgets. The room was not on display at MWC but the research paper from the Disney Research Center in Zurich was being distributed

Oh, almost forgot.  There were a few phones on display 🙂  Taller screens are the future of smartphones. They were being promoted by all the vendors.  

Now, a word of tremendous thanks to my video crew and reporter crew:


Carla Fuster 



 Hugo Barras



Silvia Di Prospero


 Michael Zita (he’s shy)




And a special thanks …. … to the Nokia service and catering crew (I am STILL stuffed!) and the whole Nokia healthcare technology team for their insights





And to IBM. We had a lot of fun in the Watson Private Solutions Lab.

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"The mind that lies fallow but a single day sprouts up follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture."
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