MWC 2016: New devices, 5G rhetoric ratchets up
By Edwin Yapp March 3, 2016
- Smartphone makers manage only incremental innovation
- 5G hype ramping up ahead of actual technology
BY all accounts, the Mobile World Congress (MWC 2016) in Barcelona last month was one of the most talked about ones in recent years, simply because mobile technology is once again sexy.
Ahead of the actual event, analysts had already predicted that buzzwords such as Fifth Generation (5G), the Internet of Things (IoT), and connected cars would dominate this year’s gathering and provide a roadmap of what’s to come.
Forrester Research analyst Dan Bieler had notably expected less hype around mobile devices, saying launches would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
“Both Apple and Google will announce their upcoming devices at their own respective events, not at MWC,” he noted.
“I am interested to see which way the pendulum is swinging: Device commoditisation or real new innovation – though I expect the former,” he had said.
On the broader industry front, Ovum chief research officer Mark Newman had been expecting the ‘5G’ label to be applied to a whole range of new technologies and initiatives.
“Sub-themes such as transformation, network [functions] virtualisation, and IoT connectivity will fall under the 5G umbrella,” he said.
Samsung and S7s
Still, smartphone launches dominated this year’s MWC from the get-go, as all eyes were trained on what the handset giants would bring to the table.
Leading the pack was Samsung, which had already started building up the hype surrounding the launch of its latest flagships – the Samsung Galaxy S7 (pic above) and Galaxy S7 Edge – earlier in the month.
Both the S7 and S7 Edge ship with Android 6.0 Marshmallow and are powered by either an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 or an Exynos chipset, depending on where you’re buying one.
Both will also come with 4GB of RAM, and are available with 32GB of internal storage, expandable with microSD card slots, which is a welcome change for those wanting more storage. Specifications can be found here.
Camera-wise, Samsung opted to go lower in terms of megapixels from last year’s 16-megapixels in the S6s to 12-megapixels in the S7s.
Some might think that’s a downgrade, but to compensate for the lower resolution, the company has lowered the focal length from the standard f/2.0 down to f/1.7, resulting in a better shooter under low-light conditions – with one initial quick take claiming that it now takes better low-light pictures than Apple’s iPhone 6.
Despite having made great first impressions, both S7s may find it tough wooing high-end smartphone spenders in the coming year. One need only look at how the S6 and the S6 Edge performed in the months following their launch in April last year, despite the great reviews they received.
“Some still seem to think that a well-made product will sell well, but the Galaxy S6 showed this assumption is wrong,” IBK Securities analyst Lee Seung-woo told Reuters.
There are two reasons for this. The first is the rising competition Samsung is facing in the highly competitive high-end smartphone market.
According to Counterpoint Research, Samsung’s global smartphone shipments only grew 0.1 percentage points from 19.4% in 2014 to 19.5% in 2015. Meanwhile the market share of its closest rival, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, grew 1.7 percentage points in the same period from 6.3% to 8%.
Furthermore, makers such as Apple, Xiaomi, Lenovo, LG Electronics and Sony are all still challenging Samsung’s market share in the overall smartphone market.
The second reason is that many of the above smartphone vendors have all been able to build very capable, functional and even ‘premium-feel’ smartphones at the US$300 price point, about half of what Samsung is charging for its flagships.
Thus consumers do not feel the need to spend so much on premium smartphones anymore, affecting Samsung’s market performance.
Many leading reviewers feel the S7s offer only an incremental improvement over the S6s, and that the S7s will only appeal to those looking to upgrade their phones from the older models.
To sweeten the deal in some markets, customers who pre-order a S7 or S7 Edge before March 18 will receive a free Samsung Gear VR (virtual reality) headset.
Industry observers however felt that while the S7 has some pretty interesting gimmicks, such as the ability to pair with the Samsung VR Gear for immersive gaming, the jury’s still out on whether Samsung will grow its market share in 2016.
Forrester Research analyst Thomas Husson said Samsung has a huge marketing budget and wants to maintain its leadership in the smartphone high-end segment. As such, it will invest a lot more than its competitors in promoting VR.
“No doubt it will help to create buzz among media, gamers, and the niche audience demanding immersive experiences,” he argued.
“But will it offer consumer benefits for the masses? The short answer is: ‘No.’ In 2016, reach for VR platforms will remain more than limited,” he added.
China’s ‘rice king’
Meanwhile, Xiaomi – loosely translated in Mandarin as ‘xiao’ (small) and ‘mi’ (rice) – also made a big splash with its latest flagship, the Xiaomi Mi 5.
The Beijing-based startup, currently valued at about US$45 billion, burst upon the scene only five years ago by building high-spec, premium smartphones at about half the price of its nearest competitors.
Its vice president Hugo Barra (pic above) was on hand to introduce what he described as a first for the company in Europe. The phone was launched officially in China on March 1, and will only be available in “its core markets,” which does not include the United States or Europe.
The Mi 5 sports all the usual features found in a top-end smartphone and will sell for approximately US$300 – compared with Samsung’s S7, which is expected to sell for about US$600 to US$700.
Xiaomi may have become popular because of its price points, but its latest figures showed a decline in growth, as shipments reached saturation point, including in its home market of China.
Counterpoint Research analyst Neil Shah (pic) believes that Xiaomi is still high on consumers’ mind as an innovative or disruptive brand.
However, in terms of design language, features and emotional value, it is falling behind Huawei.
“Comparatively, Xiaomi has not been able to cement its position in the premium space, and rather, is popular among blue-collar buyers,” he argued.
“While its brand has gained popularity, it has not gained as much as Apple, Samsung or Huawei have in recent times. Thus, the ‘halo effect’ of a true flagship is missing,” he added.
Some analysts also feel that Xiaomi will need to move beyond just low pricing to stay relevant over the long term.
Citing Ian Fogg, head of mobile for consulting firm IHS Technology, The Wall Street Journal said that while the new handset was an attractive, innovative product that would fare well, Xiaomi needed to urgently address the ‘patent question’ to sustain the global, long-term growth that it is seeking.
“Without that at best, it can deliver a few one-off hits,” argued Fogg. As it does so, “other smartphone makers must continue to look over their shoulder, even if Mi 5’s official availability remains limited to a handful of countries.”
Perhaps the most eye-catching of all the products was LG’s latest flagship, the G5. It sports a Snapdragon 820 chipset, a great looking 5.3-inch Quad HD screen, and a dual-camera setup in an attractive little body.
The biggest surprise in this package is that it’s modular – meaning that users can remove the bottom of the phone and slip in a handful of accessories to extend the functionality of the device.
You can slip in the Cam Plus grip module if you’re a serious photobug; or if you’re into the audiophile experience, the Hi-Fi Plus DAC module LG co-developed with Bang & Olufsen. Or you can simply slip in an additional battery when your first one dies.
While remaining generally cautious about the possible success of LG’s latest device, analysts applauded the company for bringing something different to the table.
CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood told Reuters that the G5 effectively gets “LG back on the radar in the smartphone market,” adding that “retailers need some differentiated features to talk about in a sea of smartphone sameness.”
Meanwhile, Kim Dong-won of Hyundai Securities said the G5 is estimated to sell 136% more than its predecessor the G4, and that LG will move a total of 10.6 million units after its April launch.
“The G5 presented the expandability of the ecosystem through smartphones by applying the world's first modular design,” ZDNet quoted Kim as saying. “The metal design and dual camera are key differentiating points.”
For me, the modular design of the G5, while daring, isn’t going to be a deal-breaker for mainstream consumers as the ‘wow factor’ they look for in any smartphone are in the build and camera quality, powerful hardware, slick software feel, and the design and beauty of the smartphone.
5G hype blasts off
Devices aside, the broader industry theme at MWC was the potential of 5G and its associated benefits to the mobile ecosystem.
But what exactly is 5G?
Besides obviously being the next technology after Fourth Generation (4G), 5G, in my books, are the mobile industry’s aspirations of where it sees itself in five years’ time.
These aspirations include a world where everything electronic – microwave ovens, washing machines, fridges – are potentially connected or linked to the Internet; a world in which cars will be driverless; where the downloading of a full-length ultra high-definition (UHD) movie will take seconds; and where there will be myriads of industrial use cases, including smart homes, smart cities, and smart industries.
Technically speaking, 5G promises 50 to 100 times faster transmission speeds compared with what’s available on 4G today. Also, it will boast of less than one millisecond latency – the ability of the signal to get from one point to another – compared with 20 to 30 milliseconds on 4G today.
I use the word ‘aspirations’ cautiously because 5G isn’t even a standard yet today – that may only come to fruition in 2018 or 2019.
5G, to me, is more like wishful thinking of what the mobile world would be like beyond 2020.
Still, that didn’t stop the 5G hype at MWC, with even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talking up virtual reality as the killer application for 5G.
Others too, did their part in drumming up 5G excitement: Ericsson, Nokia, the GSM Association (the organiser of MWC), Intel, Qualcomm and a host of other vendors.
But while the vendors are getting excited about 5G’s prospects, I concur with several analysts who warned against overhyping 5G and its prospects for the future.
Forrester Research’s Bieler said that while 5G is undoubtedly one of the defining themes of MWC, there is also a noticeable difference between vendors as to what 5G actually means, indicating that standardisation is still ongoing.
“5G will be much more of an evolution over the years ahead rather than a sudden revolution at a set date,” he argued.
“In emerging markets, legacy technologies like Second Generation (2G) are even still seeing data growth, thus adding to the intricacies of introducing 5G.”
Indeed, even Nokia and Ericsson differ as to when 5G will hit the ground, according to a Reuters report.
Another analyst, Roger Entner of Recon Analytics, was even more sceptical, arguing that the world today is so far away from 5G that “it’s not even funny.”
While we have a vague idea of what the standards might look like, no-one knows for sure what air interface or spectrum will be used for this next-generation network, he argued.
“There is a lot of preparation work going on,” he told Wireless Week. “It’s a marathon run, [and] we’ve barely passed the 100-metre line.
“It’s way too early, so everybody is just saying ‘Hey, we’re out of the starting blocks, look at us.’ But all of them are neck and neck with each other,” he added.
As I’ve argued before, from the transition lessons we learnt going from 2G to 3G and then to 4G, we need to proceed cautiously to 5G too.
There are myriads of issues facing 5G. These include negotiations of what kind of radio frequency spectrum to use, nations need to agree on interoperable standards, tariffs for international use, security, compliance and data sovereignty, just to name a few.
Coupled with all this is the race between vested interests such as industry bodies, vendors, mobile operators, and the lobbying and jockeying between them as to what is best for each of their own interests – it will take years before the dust settles.
And while I don’t doubt 5G’s potential, the industry needs to begin with the end in mind – to figure out what the world needs and how to solve these challenges, rather than over-marketing what 5G can do for all of us.
Forrester’s Husson put it best: “Let’s face it: 5G will have no impact whatsoever for consumers in the next five years, and for now, it’s a standards battle.
“The history of 3G and 4G networks tells us it will take years before we reach any critical mass after commercial launches at the end of this decade. End of the story.”
Regulators should consider higher frequency bands for 5G: Ericsson
Nearly 40mil smartphones sold across SEA in 1H 2015: GfK
MWC 2015 wrap-up: Noteworthy devices on display
Mobile World Congress: Moving beyond device launches
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