I am not sure precisely when the change happened, but at some point Mobile World Congress became the smartphone show. It’s a good thing to be in the world of tech shows – and there’s certainly a kind of outward-looking excitement that’s largely lacking in the world of cellular infrastructure.
The large stands and flashy press conferences of the mobile phone giants are precisely the kind of news-generating content that draws the eyes of the world to what might otherwise be a trade-only event. Hardware companies have found themselves locked into an announcement cycle related to these shows. CES is where you get home electronics, clothes, dishwashers, and possibly cars. But MWC is all about the phones.
But the past few years have had a profoundly chilling effect on the smartphone. Beyond the inevitable shift from novelty to necessity, smartphone sales were already on a downward trajectory before the global pandemic. Shopping habits slowed as users became less attached to the carrier upgrade cycle. And as the price of high-end handsets has exploded past $1,000, the pace of must-have upgrade features has slowed.
Even if marketing departments try to convince you otherwise, generational technology breakthroughs don’t happen every year in consumer electronics. There’s also a tongue-in-cheek, monkey-foot-style twist to it all. As manufacturers rushed to outdo each other, smartphones got pretty good at everything. If you’re willing to spend more than, say, $500 or $600, it’s hard to go wrong these days.
Sure, some devices are better than others (I’d probably be out of a job otherwise), but industry advancements have made products more durable, with longer-lasting batteries and better specs. As a result, planned obsolescence is no longer what it used to be. There will certainly always be a small contingent of enthusiastic fans who will demand an annual upgrade, no matter the specifics (I probably work with a few of them). But overall, the phones are better and people are keeping them longer – a net positive for landfills, but a decisive mark on sales.
These things are to be expected from a mature category. The iPhone turned 15 this year. The first Android device reaches this milestone next year. But the downward trend in sales figures has been accelerated by the pandemic. First, there was the simple fact that people did not leave their homes. Disposable income became a motivating factor as some jobs were lost and others were terminated (not to mention the big quit that followed). The money people spent on electronics went to outfitting home offices.
Then came supply chain shutdowns and chip shortages. This means that people who wanted to upgrade couldn’t do so in many markets. And unsurprisingly, these issues have had a disproportionate impact on small businesses with much less influence on chip and component makers.
It was intended to be a weird MWC in every way. In 2020, it became one of the first major tech events to unplug, a month and a half after CES went down just under the wire. Last year’s show was on a much smaller scale. This year, CES/MWC’s fortunes have reversed somewhat, with the latter seemingly missing the worst of the omicron variant, which sent shivers down the spine of some of the biggest names in tech ahead of the Vegas show. Not to mention the other major world event that should have an impact here.
I won’t be at the show this year. In the end, it really didn’t make much sense, especially as I keep crying for missing a week in Barcelona. This has been one of the great rewards of this work. It’s a fascinating sight in one of the world’s great cities that has been plagued by all sorts of weird TechCrunch adventures. Maybe I’ll write a memoir one day for the eight people who might be interested in such a thing.
Anecdotally, there doesn’t seem to be much buzz for a big show that should start in a few days. In addition to the general weirdness around big in-person events, there’s been a confluence of factors that seem to point to the beginning of the end of MWC’s days as the world’s premier smartphone launch pad. It certainly remains alive as a major event for mobile networks and infrastructure, although some of the outward-looking shine has worn off.
There’s been a broader trend for companies to go the Apple route and choose to launch devices at their own events on their own terms. This, again, has been accelerated by the pandemic, as companies have been forced to set up their own infrastructure for remote presentations. Samsung did precisely that earlier this month, with its S22 launch. Of course, not every company has the appeal of an Apple or Samsung (or, for that matter, Google), so tying yourself to an event like MWC or CES always makes sense.
The mobile industry in general has also undergone dramatic transformations in recent years. LG has stopped making phones. HTC may still make them, but at the very least has moved away from the category in a dramatic way – especially for the maker of the aforementioned first Android phone. Huawei, meanwhile, is facing a lot these days, including penalties that prevent it from using the Android operating system and Qualcomm chips. Although we may see real HarmonyOS handsets?
On that last front, I think it’s fair to say that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon release cycle sucked some of the air out of the Fira de Barcelona. While using Snapdragon’s latest flagship isn’t much of a differentiator (Qualcomm has just under a third of the global mobile chip market), companies can gain a slight advantage by being one of the first to market it. With Qualcomm’s big event now taking place every December, launches continue to happen earlier and earlier in the year.
Lenovo has just announced a new Motorola handset, the Edge Plus, which finds the largely budget-focused brand approaching the $1,000 mark. That means his parent will likely stick to laptops. Likewise, Samsung is expected to use the show to announce a new Galaxy Book, having already shown the world the Galaxy S22. I guess both technically qualify as “mobile”, but neither really bolsters MWC’s image as shown on the smartphone.
That doesn’t leave many major players. In addition to the potential noise of a Huawei camp looking to claw their way out of the mud, other Chinese manufacturers could fill some of the void here. Oppo’s OnePlus brand unveiled its flagship product around CES, but the parent company could well take advantage of it to get people talking.
Ditto for TCL, which continues to work to establish its own brand. Xiaomi and Vivo, meanwhile, are struggling to establish themselves outside of their home market and India – although the number one and two smartphone markets already have plenty of room for growth.
With MWC taking place next week, it’s too early to say definitively where all of this leaves the show – and the industry in general. At best, it’s a transition period at a strange time for hardware makers – an awkward adolescence as the industry looks to the horizon in hopes of stumbling upon the next major disruptor.