Internet of Things, virtual reality, phones and more: What to expect at Mobile World Congress 2016

With MWC 16 ready to take over Barcelona, we examine what are likely to be the key themes of the show.
Written by Danny Palmer, Senior Writer

MWC is set to take over Barcelona once more.

Image: iStock

It's that time of year again, and Mobile World Congress is almost upon us. There was a time when the conference -- which takes place in Barcelona from 22 to 25 February -- was just a mobile phone show, but that's long gone.

Technology has evolved and MWC has evolved with it, becoming a place where many of the world's big technology firms -- aside from one notable absentee -- want to demonstrate their products.

No longer is 'mobile' just something for phones; vast swathes of related technologies will all be demonstrated at the show, which this year boasts the tagline 'mobile is everything', making it clear that the days of MWC as a niche show are long gone. Here's a rundown of what are mostly likely to be the key themes of Mobile World Congress 2016.



Phones remain a key attraction at Mobile World Congress.

ZDNet/CBS Interactive

Perhaps an obvious one to begin with, but while there are other draws for technologists, smartphones still remain the headline act of MWC. Some of the biggest players in the game will be in attendance, even if Apple is conspicuous in its absence from Barcelona.

Samsung has already played its hand with a video tease which suggests it's set to unveil the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 the day before MWC opens its doors. Images released by the South Korean firm show that the S7 devices look very similar to their predecessors and are expected to provide more battery life and greater resistance to dust and water, amongst other features.

Those eager to buy a Samsung Galaxy S7 will be itching for Samsung to provide a release date for their new phone, which retailers suggest will be available for pre-order shortly after the device is revealed.

While Samsung might be the big draw, plenty of other smartphone manufacturers will be looking to make an impact at MWC. LG has already announced it will be unveiling its G5 handset, while rumours suggest BlackBerry will be revealing a second Android smartphone, currently going by the codename Vienna. It's expected that it'll offer a regular BlackBerry keyboard, combined with Google's Android OS.

Huawei is also expected to have a strong presence at the show, but it won't be the only Chinese firm to make an appearance in Barcelona. According to Gartner research director Roberta Cozza, there'll be strong presence from China.

"I'm expecting more presence from the Chinese vendors. Xiamoi will make a debut at MWC this year and they may not only be talking about smartphones, but also other wearable devices. There's also going to be Opal, another emerging Chinese player which is looking to expand," she explains.

So expect mobile phones to remain very much a part of Mobile World Congress; they're not dead yet.

Virtual reality headsets


There's growing competition in the virtual reality headset space.

Image: ZDNet

Be it a wristband, a watch or anything else you can attach to your body, it's safe to say that within the technology industry, there's a lot of hype around wearable technology. We can expect to see much from it at MWC and many signs point to virtual reality headsets having the potential to be a major talking point of the show.

HTC's Vive virtual reality headset came away from last month's CES event with major plaudits, Facebook is still working on the Oculus Rift, and Google has started making a major push into virtual reality.

All of this, according Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE and senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Ulster, points to virtual reality being a "crucial" technology of the future and a star of the show. However, he believes that it'll be those who perfect making a commercial and successful VR product that will drive the future of the technology, potentially putting great importance on MWC efforts.

"Like many landscapes before online -- those who arrive first, do it well, and plant the flag may own it forever, e.g. shopping (Amazon), auctions (eBay), social media (Facebook). The tech world knows this so we should expect to see those wares on display at MWC 2016," Curran explains.

It's suspected that Samsung will use MWC to make a push for VR -- especially given the fact it features so prominently in their pre-conference video tease. Gartner's Roberta Cozza believes this will be the case.

"From Samsung, there definitely should be something around VR, which could be a totally new device," she says.



Mobile firms are keen for the arrival of 5G.

Image: Shutterstock

While it might seem that 4G isn't yet that widespread amongst mobile data users, the industry is already pushing ahead for the next generation of wireless connectivity. We can expect some examples of what it could do to be on display at MWC, even if the product isn't officially due out for a few years yet.

Nonetheless, a number of firms operating in the mobile and telecommunications industry are keen to demonstrate how they believe 5G services can be a real driver of change. Erik Kruse, head of Ericsson's Networked Society Lab, believes 5G might be the "overall theme" of Mobile World Congress because the industry is "anxious" to prepare for it.

5G might not sound as inherently flashy as new phones, wearable tech, or a VR headset, but Kruse believes it can offer a lot of potential to a series of industries, especially those keen to exploit the potential of the Internet of Things. But it isn't only industry it will improve things for; consumers can expect to get a boost from 5G too.

"Of course [5G] is really good for media companies everywhere because suddenly you'll have the capability of transferring 4k or even 8k video," Kruse explains, adding: "It opens radical solutions in all industries."

However, he warns that the industry might have to come together as soon as MWC to assert a legal standard on the wavelength, because phone manufacturers will be willing to go it alone if they can't exploit the technology sooner rather than later.

"I think overall that phone manufacturers are preparing for 5G because we'll see some launches to things similar to 5G, even if it isn't legally standardised, in order to get those services to users at the Olympics and so on," Kruse says.

The 'birth' of 5G could therefore be very much a talking point of MWC.

The Internet of Things


The connected home could be a key driver of the The Internet of Things.

Image: CNET/CBS Interactive

A clamour to be the first to exploit 5G technology goes hand in hand with the Internet of Things, an area to which some of the major players in the industry's old guard -- including Intel, Dell, and IBM -- are set to dedicate whole conferences. Certainly, the idea of a connected world would go hand in hand with MWC's 'mobile is everything' tagline.

Indeed, as Forrester analyst Thomas Husson suggests, MWC -- and to a certain extent, CES -- are increasingly centred around tech innovation and the Internet Of Things, and Gartner's Roberta Cozza indicated that she agrees.

"Definitely we've seen more of a push to an Internet of Things ecosystem. We're seeing more articulation around this story of the potential of what they could do and all the devices it could benefit, from the fridge to the wearable," she says.

As a result, we could possibly see many companies -- both traditional blue chip vendors, as well as those more familiar in the mobile industry, such as Samsung and LG -- push the potential of IoT hubs, something which will make the 'connected home' a prominent presence at the show.

But while there's a lot of excitement around IoT, there are those who believe that it'll only truly be a star MWC if ways of harnessing the tech are properly addressed by those espousing to be experts in big data.

"Emerging gateway layer technology holds the key to processing, standardizing, and categorizing the vast quantities and formats of data generated by IoT -- and securely. This will be a hot discussion at the show as industry players look to partner to develop the required technologies," argues Werner Knoblich, Red Hat's senior vice president and general manager for EMEA.

Driverless cars


The traditional automotive industry is now very much a part of the race for driverless cars.

Image: BMW

A year ago, it seemed that the likes of Google and Apple were going to be leading the way in driverless cars and other autonomous vehicles. Fast-forward to 2016 and it seems that vehicle manufactures want to regain the lead in the race in this area, with the likes of Ford, Jaguar, Volvo, and Toyota all investing in the area. It's expected many will be showing off their latest research projects at MWC.

"Connected cars will be a hot topic we'll see at Mobile World Congress. The expectation is that connectivity in cars will enable all sorts of new possibilities for driving vehicles," explains Pauolo Marini, VP of business development at PRISMA Telecom Testing, an organisation which sees 5G as a key to unlocking the potential of autonomous vehicles.

It isn't exactly a secret that the automotive industry sees driverless vehicles as a huge interest generator -- and potentially an influx of money, if they get it right. Indeed, as Ericsson's Erik Kruse points out "all car manufacturers are looking into self-driving cars" and "everyone is preparing for it".

And it's not just driverless cars which will be on show at Mobile World Congress. Expect to see some manufacturers also preparing to demonstrate prototypes of other types of vehicles which are capable of driving themselves. Cars are one thing but delivery vans and even drones could change online retailing.

Ultimately, the way cars have such a prime position at MWC reflects the evolution of the show itself. No longer is it just a means for technology firms and businesses demonstrating new phones, it's one of the largest events for a variety of corporations to pitch their ideas for the future of everything.

Read more about Mobile Web Congress - this year and last

Editorial standards