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The run-up to Mobile World Congress 2016: “We are hopelessly hooked”

February 19th, 2016 |  Published in Mobile World Congress 2016

MWC 2016

 MWC’s theme this year: “Mobile Is Everything”

By: Gregory P. Bufithis

Founder/Executive Director



19 February 2016 – Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, 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.


Yet today, 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.


Dwight Macdonald —  the U.S. writer, editor, film critic, social critic, philosopher, political radical, the-list-goes-on — is often remembered for one particular quote from 1957:


As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking.


Dwight, we’ve moved along. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

MWC mobile is mandatory 600


Yet we are conflicted. In numerous surveys, smartphone owners describe feeling “frustrated” and “distracted.” In a 2015 Pew survey, 70 percent of respondents said their phones made them feel freer, while 30 percent said they felt like a leash. Nearly half of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds said they used their phones to “avoid others around you.”


NOTE: I am not oblivious to the dark side in all of this connectivity.  At the end of this post a few comments on the negativity of all this technology.


But mobile has become everything – as the Mobile World Congress (MWC) is pushing this year. In the past year or so it seemed that mobile innovation was replaced by financial engineering, mergers and acquisitions, and evasion of regulations. American tech firms flocked to Ireland in order to avoid regulation, or just concoct whatever they needed to avoid regulations … anywhere.


But if we have learned nothing else it is that every smartphone-addict and Google-whacker is continually evolving their thinking by making the most of today’s digital tools, and “out-thinking” will continue to evolve as new tools enter our lives. That is the marvelous cognitive landscape we face.  As Forrester Research said in their latest piece on the future of mobile: “companies now realize that mobility is the new “front end” for almost all engagement systems. Apps are increasingly context aware, fed by the cloud, sensors, history and social data. So companies have deployed apps for customers, partners, employees — all around this super-enhanced form of engagement”.

If only I had thought to take my damn phone with me

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


Bravo.  Mobile apps from companies can’t just log data, they need to harness all the power of mobile.


The tipping point


We saw it best in the metrics from the Super Bowl earlier this month: Super Bowl 50 went down as the tipping point for a new phenomenon: viewers playing back the ads on their smartphones right after they watch them on TV. According to Google/YouTube, 330,000 hours of Super Bowl ads were played online during the broadcast of the game that Sunday, up 10% from last year. And sixty percent of that online viewing occurred on mobile devices. Moreover, over 62% of mobile owners use their phones at home in place of their laptops for search, social media, digital consumption, etc. A 12% rise over last year.


And as McKinsey reported last month, 38% of internet traffic (up from 26% 3 years ago) comes from mobile devices and mobile is very quickly becoming not “mobile first” but “mobile only”. Smartphones and mobile devices have given each of us a “second brain”, allowing us to navigate new cities without getting lost and speak fluently in different languages.


There are three parts to mobile devices: hardware, software and ecosystem. In this ever changing mobile world the realms of possibility shift on an almost monthly basis. The increasing sophistication of handsets and their ability to connect to more devices than ever before has given rise to perhaps the most complex yet beneficial development of them all – the mobile ecosystem.



Which is why this marvelous convergence of diverse technologies and applications and the “what is possible” makes attendance at events like MWC mandatory.


I want to use this post to explain the venue, and list some brief points on what I expect to cover the coming week (the event officially runs Monday through Thursday but this coming Sunday will have a bevy of parties, workshops and “meet & greet” events).



The venue


It’s easy to get distracted at MWC what with 98,000+ attendees expected … up from 93,000+ last year, which exceeded 2014 (85,000+) and 2013 (76,000+). It has long been an essential date in the mobile industry calendar given the potential client/customer base. With the highest number of CxOs at any technology event.


Yes, there are panels and training sessions (the mobile forensics 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 dinners and parties.  As our chums from Orange always say “Mobile World Congress really runs from 6 p.m. to 4 am”.    And look … it’s Barcelona and it’s beautiful outside.


This is all spread out across 260,000 square meters … roughly  a 15-20 minute walk from the North end to the South end of the exhibit hall area … but the folks from the GSM Association (GSMA) … the organizers of MWC … make it so easy to navigate. If you are in any part of technology space, this is heaven:


▪ You start by hitting Barcelona airport (or the train stations) where there are “fast track” registration booths (that start today and run for 1 week) to pick-up your conference badge and conference materials (including a Metro pass for the week), with a crackerjack GSMA staff that can resolve almost any problem you might have, make scores of suggestions concerning how to cover the event, where to take a eat/drink break, accommodations etc.


▪ If you have booked at one of the hundreds of participating hotels, you’ll find a MWC “welcome package” there, too


▪ By now of course you have downloaded the conference interactive agenda apps on your phone(s) and tablet(s), you have pre-selected sessions/panels, and explored the exhibitor list to set up your networking contacts/meetings, all via your MWC personal account. And you have most likely been emailed by other attendees who wish to meet you.


▪ Oh, and you have set up your Mobile World Live TV account to stream the stuff that you cannot fit into your schedule.


▪ In the enormous exhibit halls (there are 14) a bevy of GSMA personnel are spread about to guide you/get you where you need to be


▪ There are recharging stations galore for cell phone, laptops, tablets, etc.


▪ There are common meeting areas for a networking “meet & greet”, a nap, a break, etc. (each usually filled with the day’s newspapers, magazines, etc.) … as well as scores of private meeting areas if you have a silver, gold or platinum badge.


▪ Food/drink (mini-outlets and full restaurants) abound so you are always just a few steps away from refreshment and so you do not miss the beat of the event, miss a connection, miss meeting a contact.


▪ Many of the vendors have private meeting areas/spaces which … if you are nice … will let you use even if not directly related to them. Many have their own coffee/snack bars …and quite a few have full bars as in alcoholic refreshment.


▪ The last few years an extra: a few vendors had video facilities to do short video clips to instantly Tweet.


▪ Plus Wi-Fi connections throughout the complex although our team always comes loaded with Spanish mobile SIM cards.


What to cover


As I noted above, it’s easy to get distracted at MWC.  All my staff covering this event have been trained on small, low-level tech events like LegalTech in New York and the IoT Tech Expo in London in order to learn/establish an operating procedure.


One staffer will have only one task: take the four days and try and hit every exhibitor and just photograph/video the booth and obtain contact information for later development.


My video team trails me for my pre-set interviews, most done on the fly, and then I and my other staffers focus on sessions/panels/exhibitors in just 3 subject areas of the 10 subject areas covered at MWC.  This year my focus is:


1. Mobile health (mHealth) apps. The floor space devoted to it at MWC  just keeps growing. These devices and apps have been shifting from our pockets to our inner bodies – think iris overlays and brain implants – making us more networked and connected and controlled than ever before.


2. The developing cognitive capabilities in mobile.  My client base recently received my memo on the MIT “breakthrough” chip that can perform powerful artificial-intelligence tasks. It will enable mobile devices to implement “neural networks” modeled on the human brain. In recent years, some of the most exciting advances in artificial intelligence have come courtesy of convolutional neural networks, large virtual networks of simple information-processing units, which are loosely modeled on the anatomy of the human brain. Neural networks are typically implemented using graphics processing units (GPUs), special-purpose graphics chips found in all computing devices with screens. A mobile GPU, of the type found in a cell phone, might have almost 200 cores, or processing units, making it well suited to simulating a network of distributed processors.


3. The media and entertainment module. People are consuming media and entertainment increasingly on their mobile devices. The third screen has become the first screen for people around the world. This year my focus is a major expansion of my media operations with a full-time media team so we will be exploring the plethora of options in broadcast, film, video, music, games and media in the global mobile sector.


We’ll have a stream of live video updates throughout the week so stay tuned.


POSTSCRIPT: the dark side


I am often accused of waxing lyrical about mobile but I am acutely aware of all the issues, especially the more detrimental side of all of this connectivity.


Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and sociologist who teaches at MIT, writes about these issues extensively. I enjoy her insights because he writes as both a clinician and an ethnographer. She presents a powerful case that the new “communication revolution” is degrading the quality of human relationships – with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can’t get their parents’ undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; conflicts resolved not face-to-face but via “fighting by text; a world of semi-engaged multitaskers, with flamers, cyberbullies, and trolls.And the addiction.


When Turkle writes that “the Net teaches us to need it,” she is speaking metaphorically. But while the Internet itself may lack intentions, those designing our interactions with it have a purpose very much like the one she describes. Twenty years ago, the hottest jobs for college graduates were at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. Today, students at Stanford and CalTech and Harvard aspire to work in product management or design at social media companies. The disciplines that prepare you for such a career are software architecture, applied psychology, and behavioral economics-using what we know about human vulnerabilities in order to engineer compulsion.


Simple, really. A successful app creates a “persistent routine” or behavioral loop. The app both triggers a need and provides the momentary solution to it: “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation. Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers”.

Look at the Facebook acquisition of Instagram, an example of the work of an enterprising team – conversant in psychology as much as technology – that unleashed a habit-forming product on users who subsequently made it part of their daily routines. Its genius was, said media analyst Jacob Weisberg, in moving beyond generalized FOMO [fear of missing out] to create angst around “the fear of losing a special moment.” Posting a photo to Instagram assuages that unease. As Weisberg pointed out: Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram, a startup with thirteen employees, was had for the “bargain price” of $1 billion. It “demonstrated the increasing power of – and immense monetary value created by – habit-forming technology. In other words, Instagram was so damned addictive that Facebook had to have it.”

Because when you look at it, says Weisberg, tech companies are engaged in “a race to the bottom of the brain stem,” in which rewards go not to those that help us spend our time wisely, but to those that keep us mindlessly pulling the lever at the casino.


Much has been written about considering human values like the notion of “time well spent” in the design of consumer technology. Most of these proposals are “nudge”-style tweaks and signals to encourage more conscious choices. For example, I use the iOS app Moment that automatically tracks how much I use my iPhone and iPad each day, and allows me to set daily limits.  Well, my wife actually sets them … especially on the weekends.


But I sense a conflict. Aspirations for humanistic digital design have been overwhelmed so far by the imperatives of the startup economy. I’ll leave it with Weisberg:


As long as software engineers are able to deliver free, addictive products directly to children, parents who are themselves compulsive users have little hope of asserting control. We can’t defend ourselves against the disciples of captology by asking nicely for less enticing slot machines.


More from the show.  Have a nice weekend.

MWC 2015 elvis 2

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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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