Internet of Things centre stage at Mobile World Congress

Ciara O’Brien: Hard to move without tripping over a stand promising a breakthrough


Every conference needs a buzzword or phrase. In recent years, smart, connected and social all got their turn in the spotlight, as executive after executive trotted out the phrases on stage in an attempt to convince attendees that their fingers really were on the pulse of the mobile industry.

This year, it was the turn of the Internet of Things. You could barely move without tripping over a stand that promised some form of IoT breakthrough. The phrase was used almost carelessly at times, applied to almost any old thing with which it could have a vague connection.

The idea that everything is connected, communicating to help make life easier and more efficient is certainly not new. It has been a feature of tech conferences for some time now, offering a new take on how we will all live in the coming years.

But at Mobile World Congress this year, the shift was definitely from simply a consumer thing, with smart homes and connected cars taking the centre stage, to how industry could benefit from the Internet of Things. That was an area where Irish companies saw their opportunity. The show was the launchpad for Eir Business’s Internet of Things platform, which is powered by Irish company Asavie. The company sees the platform as a huge opportunity for its business, one that could be worth millions in years to come.

The truth is that while mobile is still the key focus of the show, mobile phones are not the main draw for either attendees or exhibitors. Huawei, for example, did not debut its P9 phone as expected at the event. Instead, it showed off a new Windows 10 tablet, the MateBook. An update to its flagship phone is likely to come later in the year, at a separate event.

Sony may have debuted the X series phones, but the Xperia Z range was left as it was. Of the major phone manufacturers, it was left to Samsung, LG to provide the bit handset announcements of the show: Samsung with the S7 and S7 Edge, and LG with the modular G5.

Flagship smartphone

Chinese firm Xiaomi, in its first time at Mobile World Congress, also unveiled a new flagship smartphone, while Alcatel debuted the Idol 4.

The Barcelona event may have been the platform for a number of key launches in recent years, but you get the impression that the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas may have stolen its thunder a little in terms of big launches this year.

Although more than 100,000 people are expected to walk through the doors of the Fira Gran Via, that number is still eclipsed by the attendance at CES.

Michael O’Hara of GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) said the show was primarily about businesses and, with more than 5,000 chief executives attending, the GSMA was happy Mobile World Congress was fulfilling its mandate. Among those chief executives was Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook founder was on stage on Sunday to help Samsung launch its new products in virtual reality, with Samsung’s Gear VR – powered by Oculus technology – playing a starring role at the event.

In addition to the S7 Edge, Samsung was unveiling its Gear 360 camera, which is designed to capture and share footage from two 180-degree lenses.

Zuckerberg outlined why he was backing the Gear VR as solution for consumers who wanted a less expensive way to get into VR, describing it as the best mobile virtual reality headset. The key to that, he said, Samsung’s OLED screens for its phones, the display for the headset. He told the audience that VR was the future of sharing, outlining how things had developed from the time he took his first steps; his daughter’s will be captured not on film, but with a 360-degree camera that will capture the entire scene.

Facebook is also experimenting with new ways to bring VR to consumers, with dynamic streaming for its 360 videos that will quadruple the video resolution while cutting the bandwidth needed to stream the immersive content.

LG was also jumping into virtual reality, announcing a headset ahead of the start of Mobile World Congress. Even Alcatel got in on the act with its Idol 4 phone packaging that turns into a VR headset.

The discussion on 5G was not only dominated by the Internet of Things and how it would facilitate the next generation of connected devices, but also how it would help with sharing content from cameras such as Samsung’s device.

But could virtual reality be a similar fad – and suffer a similar fate – as 3D? It’s not unthinkable. A few years ago at CES and games exhibition E3, everyone was pushing 3D as the next great frontier for the entertainment industry, offering TVs and smartphones that took advantage of the new technology. Attendees at press conferences were presented with 3D glasses and urged to wear them for special presentations, leaving a good chunk of the audience nauseated. Fast forward a few years and there are only a few stragglers trying to push “glass-less” 3D to a disinterested audience.

It is difficult to gauge exactly what will grab the most attention in the wake of Mobile World Congress, but one topic that wasn’t going away was adblocking. Operators are about to break new ground. Three is to start blocking ads on its UK and Italy networks, allowing customers to choose what is relevant to them, a move that is sure to spark controversy among advertising networks and publishers alike.

5G networks

The company is partnering with Israeli start-up Shine to carry out its strategy, forcing a rethink in the industry. The move is ostensibly to stop consumers having to suffer through irrelevant advertising and paying for the privilege in the form of their data allowances, but the whispers around the show floor indicate that adblocking technology is being seen as having less altruistic motives for network operators who are tired of investing money in their infrastructure, only to have other companies make money of the back of it.

With 5G networks set to begin their rollout in the coming years, you can see why operators are starting to get a little jittery about getting the most out of their investment. One firm that was eager to make the most of the opportunity was Unlockd, a platform that claimed to be the antidote to adblocking. It offers a discount to customers on their mobile bills in return for allowing geo-targeted display ads every third time the user unlocks their mobile phone screen.

If the show was all about the evolution of mobile, the payments industry certainly needs to get a look in. Several months after separating from Ebay, Paypal announced somewhat of a turnaround when it revealed a new app that uses near-field communications to turn phones into digital wallets, interacting with existing contactless payment terminals. The new function is set to roll out in the US and Australia first.

It is a it of a turnaround from Ebay president – then chief executive – John Donahoe and his assessment of “Not For Commerce” some years ago.

“We didn’t dismiss it,” said Paypal’s head of communications Rob Skinner. “We had some experiments with NFC in our app four or five years ago. Ultimately consumers didn’t care, there were very few places you could use it.” That has changed in recent years, with contactless payments on public transport in London kickstarting a surge towards NFC payments that Paypal has followed.

There are other plans to put the mobile phone at the heart of payments. “NFC works in some situations but it doesn’t work in all,” said Paypal’s consumer produce and engineering vice president Joanna Lambert. “That’s where in-app payments will come in. There’s so many different opportunities to improve the experience.”

MasterCard, meanwhile, said it would begin to use “selfies” to verify online payments, with the additional security check of being asked to blink to prove they are a real person and not a photograph. Anyone who has been burned by the verified Visa system in the past may welcome this development, which also offers the opportunity to use biometric authenticators such as fingerprints.

Research from Ovum found there will be more than 2 billion users of mobile commerce by 2019, up from almost 453 million in 2014. “Smartphones have become a platform that can support the whole shopping journey, from product search and discovery, through comparisons and recommendations, to payments,” said Eden Zoller, Ovum’s principle analyst in consumer services and payments.

Although Mobile World Congress is winding down for this year, it’s clear the hard work is just getting started.

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