Now that the dust has settled from Mobile World Congress 2018, it is possible to get a better feel which mobility themes will set the tone for the coming year of mobility. These observations are of course subjective; they only reflect my observations over three days at the world’s leading mobility event.

To start, the pitch by MWC organizer GSMA felt more telecom-focused than in recent years. The event magazine and the panel sessions covered more telco-centric topics than in previous years. This could indicate that GSMA recognizes the need to support its members to adjust their businesses in a rapidly changing environment rather than pushing an event that covers all technology themes under the sun. My main impressions at MWC18 were that:

  • 5G was the biggest theme at MWC18 — but the business case is still not clear. References and showcases of 5G were everywhere. Most vendor pitches praise ‘5G’ as the key to a glorious future. This is a significant shift from last year, when we sensed a lot more caution. Still, unless telcos support services on top of 5G that the customers genially value ­— and pay for — 5G risks remaining a technology in search of a business case that can generate a positive ROI based on nationwide coverage. The mantra of ‘build-it and they’ll come’ remains a risky 5G roll-out strategy – unless it is treated as a ‘national goal’ like in China.
  • Mobile edge computing defines the crossroad of cloud and mobility. The convergence of cloud-based services and mobile-enabling technologies was a big theme at MWC18. Internet-of-things (IoT) connectivity has grown into a critical IoT design element. After years of being a relative niche topic, ‘multi-access’ or ‘mobile-edge’ computing has pushed into the main light – especially as part of IoT discussions. This makes sense as IoT is less about connected smart devices than distributed intelligence: some intelligence will sit in the device; some intelligence will sit in the cloud. In addition to mobile edge computing, MWC visitors had the opportunity to experience the many different IoT connectivity technologies, including NB-IoT, LoRa, Sigfox, and LTE-M.
  • Artificial intelligence and deep learning were less hyped. Many of the smaller vendors that were boasting of their AI capabilities have become noticeably quieter. Some sense of reality regarding the difficulty of developing true deep-learning-based solutions, is setting in. As a subset of machine learning, deep learning’s human brain-like ‘layered approach’ to learning, remains the remit of a few large players like Tencent, Baidu, and Google for now. Also some telcos talked about their basic chat-bots activities for customer engagement. For instance, Telefonica provided an update regarding its cognitive intelligence solution ‘Aura’. However, the real significance of services like ‘Aura’ are less about technology, but the achievement to overcome data-silo structures to generate a customer-support tool across several divisions.
  • Hardware launches received less attention than in the past. Compared with previous years, there was less hype concerning new handsets, despite Samsung’s S9+ and Nokia’s 8 Sirocco launches. MWC19 will be much more interesting as the first commercial 5G devices will be showcased. The hardware that did receive more hype at MWC18, was more network-centric and was heavily software-enabled. What was noticeable, was an increasing amount of low-end gadgetry in the more remote areas of the fair grounds.

Overall, MWC18 benefited from the greater focus on telco themes. After years of trying to be ‘all things to all men,’ the small step toward a ‘back-to-its roots’ approach is a welcome change.