Wearables, Internet of Things muscle in on smartphone spotlight at MWC

Sure the smartphone launches will provide the eye-candy, but there's more to MWC that just the handsets this year: here's what to expect.

Big handset launches from Samsung, HTC, LG, and maybe Sony and Microsoft will be providing plenty in the way of shiny gadgets at the MWC show next week.

But while the smartphone remains the core of the mobile industry, wearables and internet of things devices are also building momentum.

"The reign of mobility gives way to connectivity, as the innovation spotlight shifts from the hardware to the software powering the IoT," Forrester analyst Jennifer Belissent said.

In part, the transition is being driven by the maturity of the smartphone market: it's solid, commonplace technology - boring even. Now, even cheap smartphones can offer most of the apps and features that consumers need.

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Nonetheless, it's the new iterations of long-established flagships that will be, as usual, grabbing the headlines at MWC - despite a growing homogeneity. While the flagship devices from the big players are still adding new features - mobile payments, curved screens, or health monitoring, for example - Gartner research director Annette Zimmermann said it is "increasingly difficult for vendors to differentiate their high-end products".

She points to cameras - thanks to the world's continuing obsession with selfies - as one area that smartphone makers will focus on this year.

Pocket-bustingly large smartphones known as phablets are also likely to make a significant appearance at the show.

"Expect there to be more unveilings of innovative phablets, and overall growth of the market category, during MWC," said John Curran, managing director in Accenture's communications, media, and technology practice.

Discussion around economics of the smartphone market is another issue likely to have a high-profile at the show: it's hard to make a profit in the smartphone world, and a new wave of Chinese companies are creating devices that undercut the established leaders and often well in emerging markets - seen as increasingly important now Western countries nigh on saturated.

Another, less visible focus at MWC will be the software and services ecosystem around these new devices, offering a new way for manufacturers to sell secondary hardware and grow their markets.

As a result of these drivers, smartphone makers are turning to wearables for a new source of growth. Gartner expects to see around 70 million smartwatches and other bands sold this year, rising to 514 million within five years; research by Accenture suggests that only 12 percent of consumers intend to buy a smartwatch in the next 12 months, while 41 percent plan to do so within five years.

Because smartbands are the main companion devices to smartphones they offer a good way for device makers to drum up brand loyalty.

For users, the benefits are less clear-cut, as short battery life and a lack of must-use apps has slowed consumer adoption. "There is still room for improvement for most vendors to create more sophisticated apps and ecosystems around wearables," Gartner's Zimmerman said.

Despite not releasing a new product or holding a press conference at MWC, Apple still looms large over the show. Its influence will be particularly strongly felt around wearables, given the Apple Watch is likely to go on sale in a little more than a month. How the device sells is likely to dictate interest in smartwatches over the next year or two.

The third piece of the puzzle is the even more nascent IoT category: sensors, processing power and communications built into the most trivial of devices. Again, at least some of these will behave as companions to, or will be controlled by, your smartphone. For example, that might be a door that unlocks when you approach, or a central heating system smart enough only to warm the rooms that are in use.

But there are still plenty of questions around IoT - from standards to concerns over security and privacy - which means the growth of IoT is likely to be slow. Today, the field is likely to be more of interest to business than consumers, who are looking at tying together sensors and analytics to improve the products and services they offer.

Forrester analyst Dan Bieler said: "The long-anticipated marriage between big data and mobility is finally happening - and I expect just about every vendor at MWC to claim a stake in these mobile wedding arrangements. However, many big data business models remain building sites, and it remains far from clear which players will benefit."

It's not that the smartphone has become less important, it's more that it now sits at the centre of a much larger mobile industry.

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