The biggest show of the year for the mobile industry converges every February in Barcelona—MWC Barcelona (formerly known as Mobile World Congress), held by the cellular industry group GSMA. This is my fourth year attending MWC as an industry analyst and the show always gives me a perspective on the state of the global cellular industry that I might not get otherwise.
At this year’s event, I expect to see smartphones with refreshing new form factors and, because AR and VR companies have become so focused on mobility lately, I predict some important announcements there, as well.
The main focus of the show, though, will be 5G—without a doubt. Expect announcements from every major network operator in virtually every region. Lots of these discussions will revolve around the non-standalone (NSA) 5G New Radio (NR) deployments happening this year in the United States, South Korea, and Australia.
In fact, on paper, all three countries had already launched NSA 5G NR networks by the end of 2018. However, consumers won’t have access to these networks until probably mid- to late 2019, depending on the operator and region.
While the first phase of 5G will likely bring faster download speeds for users, many benefits are unlikely to arrive until the second phase rolls out in 2020 or 2021 (depending on whom you believe). The non-standalone version will quickly be followed by standalone (SA) 5G NR, which incorporates the full 3GPP specification that describes the entire suite of technologies that will transfer information from the network core to the RAN (radio access network).
MWC Barcelona should give us a glimpse of where various operators are in the process of launching 5G service, and how they are handling certain trade-offs along the way. For example, many NSA 5G networks will share some or all their infrastructure with existing 4G networks, which may hurt performance compared to that of SA 5G networks. Perhaps for this reason, China Mobile claims they will have an SA network ready in 2020 and will skip NSA entirely.
Over time, many believe that 5G will fundamentally change the way that we communicate, and how our devices communicate with each other. That’s why so many companies are investing heavily now. 5G’s data rates and ultralow latency could lead to devices and services that we still haven’t imagined, much like how 4G brought us services like Airbnb, Uber, and the gig and app economies.
In addition to the buzz around 5G, MWC Barcelona will also be brimming with announcements from smartphone makers. Huawei, LG, and Xiaomi will host press conferences at the show, as well as OPPO. One notable smartphone maker that’s missing from that list is Samsung, which hasn’t launched a phone at the show in years. Instead, Samsung is holding a Galaxy Unpacked event in San Francisco this week. I think this is a positive move for everyone because Samsung gets to keep the attention and buzz around its new products and other manufacturers don’t get drowned out by Samsung hype.
In the run-up to MWC Barcelona, there seems to be a general expectation that virtually every manufacturer will have a foldable device of some type, with some of them closer to commercialization than others. Many manufacturers will also have some sort of 5G phone on display, although I would be surprised if we saw any devices that are both foldable and 5G, because both pose technical challenges that I believe are currently too difficult to overcome at the same time.
While millimeter-wave antennas are indeed getting smaller, I don’t think they will allow for enough space in the frame of a foldable phone to actually make for a consumer-friendly device. Batteries will also have to be more dense before a foldable 5G phone can become a reality. It isn’t totally impossible; I just think it would be a surprise to see this soon.
Both the first-generation foldable devices and original 5G smartphones will likely carry a premium price, which may sour some consumers. The biggest challenge with these devices won’t necessarily be in making them work but rather designing software that makes them useful, and more than just gimmicks.
I also think we’re going to see a comeback of phones with keyboards at this year’s show. Blackberry started the trend with the KeyOne and Key2 and may even continue it by debuting a Key3 at the show. But this year, they won’t be alone.
Companies like Planet Computers have already announced keyboard-sporting devices like the Gemini and are expected to announce their next-generation Cosmos device at the show, as well. I think we’ll see more devices and announcements in this category, and I’m quite pleased about it. I loved having a keyboard on my phone and used one extensively in high school with Windows Mobile on my HTC. Gradually, I could see devices such as foldable phones with keyboards replacing some laptops and convertible tablets, much like phablets did to tablets.
In terms of AR and VR, I’ve found that MWC Barcelona tends to focus more on announcements about mobility, and I believe that this year will be no different. Both AR and VR will be crucial to the growth of 5G, and operators know it. Almost all the 5G demos I see today from operators involve AR or VR, or both.
I expect that we’ll probably see the next generation of AR and VR headsets from companies like HTC, which already has its own standalone VR headset in addition to its PC-tethered Vive headsets. I expect that soon, HTC and other headset makers will update this gear again to incorporate the latest chipsets and, at that point, possibly add 5G connectivity.
The biggest announcement for AR and VR this year, I believe, will come from Microsoft, with CEO Satya Nadella scheduled to present at the show. Microsoft is widely expected to announce the next generation of its HoloLens AR headset at the show, which will likely be called HoloLens 2.
Many people have waited a long time for a new HoloLens, especially considering how many developers are already familiar with the company’s platform. I’ve recommended that people wait until Microsoft releases the HoloLens 2 to make any decisions about purchasing the Magic Leap One, because I believe that HoloLens has the most mature development platform.
If HoloLens 2 ends up being a good product, with a wider field of vision, better comfort, and faster processing capabilities, it could be a shot in the arm for the AR industry this year. Such a development would be welcome considering that this year started with so many recent high-profile failures.
Overall, I believe the technologies at the center of this year’s MWC Barcelona announcements could change the way we communicate for decades to come. At its core, the show truly is about helping people to communicate. In a nutshell, I think the 2019 show will be the one where 5G becomes real, AR gets its groove back, and Microsoft finally receives proper credit for all the work it has put into the HoloLens and the Windows Holographic platform.
Anshel Sag is a consumer technology and chip analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. Prior to becoming an analyst, he worked in the IT industry for nine years. Sag now lives in San Diego, and you can also find him on Twitter.