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MWC 2019: The most significant MWC ever?

When we closed off on our MWC ’19 round-up, we said we’d be back with a follow-up and here we are. It was clear to us when we were looking at the products and technologies on display in Barcelona, and even more so as we pieced everything together for our round-up, that this year’s event felt special.

Every year MWC grows in every way and it is a truly awe-inspiring event, but it is about much more than just the size of the event itself. The innovations showcased at MWC are like looking into a time machine and taking a glimpse at our own technological futures. But this year, MWC seemed to change the settings on that time machine. It wasn’t set decades into the distant future, it was looking at our tomorrow, or maybe our 2020 is a bit more realistic. On the surface, that sounds like I’m suggesting that the products and ideas on show were similar to what we see and use on a daily basis today, but that’s not the case, quite the opposite in fact. We saw real products and technologies that we have never seen before, not just ideas, theories or trials. It feels like we have finally reached a turning point of technological advances at a consumer level and are truly on the cusp of something akin to a digital revolution.

This was exemplified by the two most prominent trends that we saw at MWC year; 5G and flexible displays. Both are things that have been talked about year after year, but we are finally seeing that breakthrough to bring it to customers. Not just in terms of technology itself either, but in the demands of the customer base. In years gone by, we have talked about what could be done, now we are talking about why we are doing it and why it’s happening now.

5G

5G seems to have been the talk of the mobile town ever since the dawn of the 4G era, but with many operators touting 2020 (or even late 2019) commercial releases, it was key that device manufacturers, chipset suppliers and infrastructure vendors all came together to show that 5G is not just ready, but useful. I’ve always been sceptical about the 5G timetables that have been plastered through the news, tech sites and industry whitepapers for years and, to a certain extent, the demand from the consumer base too. For the first time that I can think of though, it felt like real progress was made on all fronts.

Of course, despite what industry heads and the CEOs of multinational companies will tell you, we don’t NEED 5G. Those of us with almost constant access to a 4G connection get along just fine and, in the greater scheme of things, we should thank our lucky stars that we are fortunate enough to lead such privileged lives. But, in order for society to advance to the levels that we aspire, 5G is crucial. In terms of standard mobile telecommunications, it’s obvious that, with a greater number of connections and more complex devices hitting the shelves, we will eventually need to evolve beyond the capabilities of 4G.

5G has wider implications, though. Television sets and recording equipment are already looking towards 8k resolution… good luck downloading or streaming that on your 4G connection. Connected and autonomous cars will need to connect, not just with the network itself, but to all the other cars on the road as well as any traffic management systems and emergency services. A 4G network simply cannot handle that many simultaneous connections. VR and AR has progressed beyond simple entertainment and is now entwined with the robotics industry to enable real time remote interaction of equipment from the other side of the world. The low latency of 5G is key to this. We’re living in an ever more wireless and connected world where 5G will be just one of the many technologies crucial in joining all our IoT devices. This list is far from exhaustive and only scratches the surface of the demands of the general public, take it to industrial levels and suddenly it starts to look like 4G is nearly ready for the scrap heap.

These are all problems that will need solutions in the very near future. Sure, in most cases these are the epitome of ‘first world problems’ but they are genuine problems none the less. In an industry that so many people depend on, future problems need to be resolved while they are still future problems. This is why the timing of this leap for 5G technology is perfect, people WANT it now… people will NEED it soon.

We’ve known all this for what seems like an eternity and for years heard industry experts talk about the capabilities of 5G, the extent to which it can be used and what other technologies this will unlock. This year, the talking stopped, and it was time for action.

The almost zero latency achieved by 5G allows data to go from one place to another in almost real-time. It may seem like we have this already but have a think about those satellite linked interviews you see on the news broadcasts. That gap you hear between the interviewer’s question and the interviewee’s response will no longer exist with a 5G connection. So what? It’s only a few seconds in an interview right? Well, what if you were a surgeon who wanted to assist with an emergency operation in another country? That tiny delay could literally be the difference between life and death. Live from the stage at the Fira Gran Via, that’s exactly what Dr Antonio de Lacy did. Using the closed 5G network provided by Vodafone, Dr Lacy was able to see incredibly high-quality footage of the patient in real time feeding audio and visual information back to the surgeon during the operation. Ericsson also allowed visitors to remotely drive a truck back in the company’s native Sweden from the Barcelona hall, something that would surely end in disaster with a few seconds delay in the user’s visuals and the truck’s responses.

These live demos proved that the theories behind 5G are achievable and that we are ready for them now. The technology has matured to the point where we are almost ready to go live, there is a significant amount of consumer demand and 5G capable devices are just around the corner. The 5G stars are now aligning and we are truly approaching the dawn of the 5G era.

Flexible displays

I’m not even going to make an attempt at justifying a need for flexible displays. Let’s be honest, there really isn’t one. Sure, it enables a device to become smaller, it can make a device become both phone and tablet, and it may open up even more uses in the future, but these are not genuine problems or significant hurdles for technological progression like we mentioned while discussing 5G. 5G is revolutionary, flexible displays are just cool, very impressive feats of engineering. We shouldn’t let that undermine their significance though, particularly at events like MWC. The human race continually strives to improve, to achieve things that the generation before couldn’t, to turn the seemingly impossible into reality. This has been the driving force behind almost every technological advancement and invention of the modern era, even those inventions that have become an integral part of our lives were initially no more than someone wanting to prove that something could be done. The mobile phone itself is a perfect example of this. Most of today’s world is practically joined at the hip to a mobile phone, but we’ve never truly needed it. If they disappeared from our lives tomorrow, we would struggle for a while, but we would find alternatives, we would adapt, and we continue to survive as a species. But Martin Cooper and his team at Motorola, still chose to develop the first handheld cellular mobile phone back in 1973, to show that it could be done.

A lot has changed since then and the mobile phone has gone from an indicator of what we are able to achieve to something that sits unnoticed in almost everyone’s pocket. There’s no reason why we can’t be saying the same about flexible screens in the future and that’s why the breakthroughs we’ve seen at MWC this year are so significant.

As in the case for 5G, we’ve heard about the capabilities for a long time, we’ve seen prototypes, concepts and demonstrations, but it always seemed a little far-fetched. Even just a couple of weeks ago, I genuinely expected Samsung’s big reveal of the Galaxy Fold to be a flop. Screens simply shouldn’t bend. I’ve got plenty of screens around me at home and in the office and, try as I might, none of them will bend, no matter how hard I try. So, to take a flexible screen and put it into a complete working mobile device still seemed unthinkable. I was convinced that it would still be practically unusable, but I was wrong. Admittedly, there’s still work to be done, issues to be resolved and a real-world test of time to be performed, but it is finally abundantly clear that a flexible display can be incorporated into a mobile device. That’s something we’ve heard about at MWC, we may have even seen evidence, but we now have undeniable certainty.

 

I first experienced MWC in the flesh a few ago and, as incredible as it is as an event, this year is the first time that it’s really felt like a breakthrough. In year’s gone by we saw excellent new product lines push the boundaries of design and performance but in 2019 barriers were broken. We weren’t just slimming bezels and squeezing extra performance out of last year’s models, we we’re looking at a blank canvas, a redesign of the mobile phone and mobile technology as a whole. So, what now? For so long, so much focus has been put on breaking these barriers that it’s hard to imagine what comes next. This is the first year that, as the doors of MWC closed, I have no idea what will be behind them when they open again in 12-months’ time. Whatever it is, I can’t wait to find out.

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