Over 109,000 attendees came to MWC19 in Barcelona in February to see over 2,400 companies showcasing their technology, products and services. The theme of this year’s show was “The era of intelligent connectivity”; but a more apt headline might have been “Innovation is in a holding pattern.”
After more than a decade of unabated growth following the original iPhone debut in June 2007, smartphone sales have begun to plateau. Devices have coalesced around a standard form, major markets are approaching saturation, and customers are taking longer to replace their phones: Analyst Toni Sacconaghi of Bernstein Research reports that the average Apple iPhone upgrade cycle is now four years – up from three in FY 2018.
While manufacturers are doing their best to push past this innovation hiatus, none of what we saw at this year’s event felt ready for prime time. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be paying attention. Companies should use this innovation slow down to take a breather and focus on building out backend systems and exploring features/concepts that take advantage of what’s on the horizon, so they are ready when all these innovations reach maturity in next 12-24 months.
Here are four of the biggest changes coming to the mobile market, and what those changes will mean for users and developers.
Takeaway 1: Folding screens are here - in a big way
A few days before the start of MWC19, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Fold at its Unpacked event in San Francisco. The Fold, which boasts a 4.6-inch outside display and a flexible HD 7.3-inch inside display, may have been first, but it’s no longer the only folding-screen handset. It may not even be the most impressive: MWC19 saw the introduction of Huawei’s 5G Mate X which has a larger unfolded screen (8 inches), yet is thinner when closed (11 mm to Samsung Fold’s 17mm). There were a host of other announcements and concept devices on display as well, from LG, Motorola, Xiaomi, TCL and Oppo.
What it means. Competition is creeping back. There is a new race among manufacturers to define the next ideal smartphone form factor. However, with prices currently set at $2,000 and above and devices too thick to feel truly usable, it may take a while to see which folding format gains the widest adoption – especially since Apple has yet to weigh in. There are also experts who think that folding screens will end up being more of a niche or fad feature. Even if that’s not the case, Wired points out that consumers may largely decide to wait until they can get folding screens made of real glass instead of plastic polymers. So, the implications for app UX are both exciting and a bit unsettling: developers and brands will likely want to see where users are gravitating before jumping in with both feet.
What to do now. While we all need to wait until standards are established, it is never too early to begin discussing the implications and opportunities of that increased real estate with your Product and UX teams. Get your hands on some of these new devices, or partner with an agency with a usability lab to understand how your consumers will behave with these new phones in their hands. Carve out a half a day to explore and sketch out some new concepts for your existing apps to explore the “what if” scenarios larger screens present. While you may not be building any of these new experiences in the immediate short term, getting in the rhythm of pulling the team out of their day-to-day to explore what’s next is always fruitful.
Takeaway 2: 5g is (still) coming
While folding screens may have gotten more attention at MWC19, the biggest news for the industry is the fact that 5G is finally coming to market. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are all promising to deploy 5G in at least some areas this year. Qualcomm says it will allow browsing and download speeds 10 to 20 times faster than 4G LTE in real-world (not laboratory) conditions; however coast-to-coast deployment is still years away.
What it means. The Mate X’s Balong 5000 modem will be able to download a 3GB HD movie in under 10 seconds. That kind of speed will enable streaming VR and 3D games that have the power to transform every aspect of the consumer mobile experience – and create a whole new set of winners and losers in entertainment and media. But first, data plans need to catch up: download just 3 HD movies to your new Mate X with a generous (for now) 10GB plan, and you’ll reach your monthly limit in 30 seconds. For now, 5G may turn out to be more important for industrial users: the low latency of 5G networks is a game-changer that will allow fleets of drones to fly more safely, enable heavy machinery to be operated remotely and even let doctors perform precision surgery on patients thousands of miles away.
What to do now. When 4G LTE rolled out in the US in 2010, developers were quick to take advantage of faster web browsing, HD video streaming, improved video conferencing, and immersive online gaming experiences that were once reserved only for consoles. 4G LTE fundamentally changed consumer’s relationship with their mobile devices. 5G will be no different. What concessions were made on past mobile development projects due to poor load times or slow file transfers? Time to revisit those. But beyond the obvious advances due to increased bandwidth and speed, start thinking about what will be possible with the near-zero latency that will be ushered in by 5G. While not as sexy as the prospects of streaming 4k video through your mobile connection, zero-latency is what will enable your team to build experiences that will change the world. Have you shelved a project in the past due to latency limitations? Time to dust it off.
Takeaway 3: VR is getting more real than virtual
One of the exciting devices to debut at MWC19 wasn’t a phone at all. Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is a second-generation VR headset, but unlike the original HoloLens this one targets industrial markets. It’s meant to be used as a tool that helps factory workers, construction personnel, technicians, and even surgeons perform complex tasks more precisely and accurately. Demonstrations reveal that it’s like having a step-by-step visual guide overlaying the job you’re looking at, showing you exactly what to do at any point in a given process. HoloLens 2 incorporates eye-tracking technology, so it even knows what you’re looking at – and can refocus your attention as needed.
What it means. While the applications shown so far are uniquely tailored to specific industrial and health care processes, these kinds capabilities will eventually migrate downstream opening up a host of VR possibilities for the broader consumer market beyond gaming and entertainment. Imagine an Ikea competitor that offers VR headsets to help you put furniture together, or meal-delivery services that show you exactly how to sauté the ingredients they just sent over for your dinner.
What to do now. While it is fun to dream about the possibilities, the steep price tag of high-end devices like the HoloLens 2 means consumer adoption will be slow to come. The real opportunity right now is in thinking through how this technology can be leveraged inside your organization to increase employee efficiency and improve collaboration between remote workers. During Microsoft’s MWC19 presentation, Mattel’s Chief Technology Officer Sven Gerjets, demonstrated how manipulating a 3D model of a toy truck using the HoloLens 2 allowed his team to identify design flaws earlier in the production cycle, saving Mattel both time and money. Per Sven, “Our classic brands like Barbie and Hot Wheels have diverse teams of designers, engineers, marketers and manufacturers that are spread all over the world. They can now come together in a Spatial project room, reducing the need to travel to get everyone on the same page.”
Takeaway 4: Batteries are still an issue
All mobile phones have batteries, but one of the oddest things at MWC19 could better be described as a battery with a phone attached. The Energizer Power Max P18K Pop from Avenir Telecom in France is almost 4 times as thick as an iPhone, because it features a staggering 18,000mAh battery.
What it means. While batteries are getting better all the time, more breakthroughs are needed: the advent of 5G networks, chipsets powerful enough to process all that data and phones with enormous folding screens will put a strain on manufacturers’ ability to provide the long battery life and short charging times consumers demand.
What to do now. Temper your expectations for this first wave of 5G and foldable devices. When the first 4G LTE devices hit the market, many analysts and consumers deemed them almost unusable given their short battery life and tendency to overheat. So be patient — things will most likely get worse before they get better. Beyond significantly improved network performance, the first 5G mobile devices are likely to take a step backward until battery technology catches up.
In summary. The smartphone paradigm that has existed since the launch of the iPhone may have gone about as far as it can go, but the limits of mobile technology and capabilities are still expanding exponentially. Folding phones, pervasive 5g connections, and seamless VR experiences may be years away from mainstream, but now is the time to start working in think tank mode — discussing concept/feature prioritization with your teams and how these new technologies will allow your company to change the relationship with your customers and clients.
The seeds of the next wave of mobile innovation are beginning to sprout. While a full harvest is quite a ways off, brands must begin planning how to capitalize on these exciting advancements today, or risk being caught flat-footed in their mobile strategy like so many companies found themselves in 2010 and 2011.