Beyond the shiny smartphones: What to really watch for at MWC 2017

Plenty of new handsets will debut in Barcelona, but big challenges lie ahead for smartphone makers like Samsung, LG and Huawei.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Barcelona is home to Mobile World Congress.

TomasSereda, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mobile World Congress will see a slew of smartphone launches, but beyond the shiny new devices, the next technology battlefields are slowly coming into focus.

Among the likely hardware highlights at next week's mobile technology event in Barcelona are LG showing off its new LG G6 smartphone, while Huawei is expected to unveil the follow-up to its well reviewed P9 flagship smartphone.

Other vendors to watch out for include BlackBerry and its new hardware partner TCL with the BlackBerry Mercury. Nokia -- the brand is now licenced to HMD Global -- may also be showing off new smartphones.

But these vendors and their products can't match the anticipation surrounding the flagship devices from market leaders Samsung and Apple. Samsung is likely to debut its Galaxy Tab S3 tablet at the show, but its unclear whether the hotly anticipated Galaxy S8 will put in an appearance, as recent reports suggest that it's launching next month in New York. And Apple's next iPhone isn't going to appear for months yet.

The rise of the smartphone has had a huge impact. Ian Fogg, senior director for mobile and telecoms at IHS Markit, said the technology pioneered in mobile has gone on to transform the broader tech market -- like the arrival of app stores on tablets and now PCs. "The mobile industry has become the technology industry," he said. And despite the nascent market for wearables, the smartphone remains the core device for most people. "The smartphone is the hub of their digital life," he said.

Still, beyond the glitz of new product launches, the smartphone market is in flux.

The next wave of innovation

"One of the key things is, beyond all these announcements driven by technology, understanding what will be the next wave of innovation around the smartphone," said Roberta Cozza, research director at analyst Gartner.

Smartphones will have to work as part of an array of devices like smartwatches and smart glasses, she said. "You're going to see more smart wearables being announced, and wearables that try to decrease the overload on the user," she said.

Virtual personal assistants will also be a key feature, with vendors making a point of how their smartphone can be made more intelligent, or play a role in the connected home or the connected car. Look out for announcements that position smartphones for these new scenarios, said Cozza.

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"This is the next battleground for the vendors to deliver experiences instead of products. Products and technology don't sell today because the market is so saturated," she added.

"Users have a smartphone that they are quite happy with, they don't feel the need to go into the next sequel, so if these vendors are unable to differentiate on these other experiences, where the smartphone can be the hub of new applications and services, then many will fail to survive," said Cozza.

Smartphone makers will invest in artificial intelligence to power their smart assistants, and also invest in connected home and other services, or build partnerships with other companies.

One battle that's over is the one around mobile operating systems: Android and iOS are the last two left standing. In the fourth quarter of last year Android and iOS accounted for a remarkable 99.6 percent of the smartphones sold: Microsoft managed a 0.3 percent market share and other operating systems grabbed another 0.1 percent. But that victory doesn't make life any easier for Android vendors.


According to Cozza, the Android market is highly commoditised and very dynamic: "You see vendors that come and go; some stay for a year and disappear -- it's the nature of the lower barriers to entry. Many of the vendors in Android are really struggling to build brand loyalty, and that's the problem with Android: if you're not happy you just switch easily to another brand."

For companies like Huawei, which have grown market share by focusing on technology and value for money, the problem is how to sustain that and build loyalty.

"They need to attach more meaningful experiences beyond just the dual cameras on their phones -- I don't think that will last long as value proposition," said Cozza.

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