Personal Tech

Mobile World Congress: 5 buzzwords, an homage to Windows XP and a smartphone snorefest

And why was Microsoft tucked away in startup event?

By Tim Anderson


MWC18 As Mobile World Congress draws to a close in relatively warm Barcelona (13°C - balmy), it's time to tally up on whether it delivered on the hype.

The buzz ahead of MWC was that Samsung would launch the Galaxy S9 smartphone, that 5G connectivity would come closer to commercial reality, and that advances in AI and machine learning would bring new levels of intelligence to cities, homes and businesses.

It is true that 5G will change everything... kind of. Samsung gave some examples: download a 15GB movie in six seconds on mobile broadband, 1.7Gbps broadband on a train travelling at 100kmph, 1ms latency enabling a self-driving car to stop in time to avoid a collision. At the same time, Huawei announced an agreement with BT to trial 5G technology, one of many such announcements.

In the meantime we struggle on with 4G or worse, and device vendors at the show struggled to come up with compelling ideas for their new smartphones. Samsung talked mainly about cameras and social media at the S9 launch, a symptom of the fact that Android smartphones are mature and commoditised.

Huawei’s press event came just ahead of Samsung’s at MWC, though the company is holding back its next smartphone, the P20 series, for an event in Paris on 27 March. It did launch a new Windows laptop though, the 13.9" MateBook X Pro, a nice design with a discrete Nvidia MX 150 GPU, as well as an unusual pop-up front camera to save you sticking tape over it.

Homage to Windows XP? Huawei MediaPad M5 Android PC Experience

What caught my eye at Huawei’s event was a feature of its Android MediaPad M5 tablet, also launched at the event. Dock it with an external keyboard, and it offers what Huawei calls a “PC Experience”, complete with a desktop background that can only be described as homage to Windows XP. Samsung has a similar feature which it calls DeX (Desktop Experience), which works with Galaxy S8 and S9.

400GB local storage for your mobile

The idea is not new, but the implementations are getting better. At MWC SanDisk showed 400GB microSDXC memory cards with speeds up to 100 MBps, a reminder that on-board storage need no longer be an issue. Along with Microsoft’s rather good Android Office applications, this may tip more people into not bothering to have a Windows laptop at all.

Linux and a keyboard on your smartphone, what's not to love?

The Gemini PDA: Linux and a keyboard on a mobile

The most distinctive new mobile I saw at MWC was from UK startup Planet Computers, the Gemini PDA, put together by a team including ex-Psion designer Martin Riddiford. The two notable features of the Gemini ($599 with 4G) are first, the clam-shell mini keyboard, and second, that it dual-boots both Android and Linux. I tried typing on the keyboard, and while there is some benefit to a physical keyboard in terms of precision, I soon concluded that it is too cramped to achieve anything close to laptop speed, though it may be different for some. However, the ability to run Linux is a delight for techies; it is like having a battery-powered mobile Raspberry Pi and I can see this being useful for troubleshooting - connect to network, run favourite Linux tools and utilities.

The Gemini pocket PC is shipping and we've got one. This is what it's like


Beyond geeks? I asked whether mobile keyboard-love was now only for an older generation. "It’s a good question. There is a nostalgia factor," admitted the guy from Planet. And if even keyboard-champion BlackBerry has now mostly retreated from physical keyboards on phones, why will this work for the Gemini?

“This product has been delivered in a year with a team that numbers four and a half. We’re not BlackBerry cost-based,” your correspondent was told. Planet is hoping for 2,000-3,000 units a month to make it commercially viable. Currently the biggest problem is getting the factory to come up with all the required keyboard layouts.

What comes after the smartphone?

What comes after the smartphone? While there was nothing at MWC that looks likely to replace the many things these devices accomplish so easily, it is arguable that the faster the network becomes, the more attention shifts from devices to services.

Hence buzzword number two: AI. Huawei’s slogan for the forthcoming P20 is “See Mooore (sic) with AI”, the triple O hinting at the possibility of a third camera (the company has long featured dual cameras on its devices). AI can be transformative, though smarter AI is on a collision course with a desire for greater privacy, thanks to its reliance on personalisation through data analysis. Privacy is unlikely to win. Further, the battle in personal assistants looks like a two-horse race between Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa, both of which were everywhere at MWC.

Google used a section of MWC called Android Works to showcase its technology, and in reality it was AI and Google Assistant rather than the operating system that were centre-stage.

There were demos of Assistant-driven products at home, including security cameras, heating, lighting and audio, as well as a short demo of a day in a Google-driven life, from having Android turn on the lights to locking the door when you go out and starting the cooking before you get back.

Micro...Microsoft? Is that you?

Microsoft was at MWC, pitching Azure to startups

Microsoft was also at MWC, though it took some finding, with its only official stand being in the 4YFN (Four Years from Now) startup event which took place in a separate venue from the main congress. It was pitching Azure to startups. The company’s failure in mobile is well-known, though Windows Phone is missed by some.

During a briefing with HP I was told that a key factor behind HP embracing Apple iOS in its “Device as a service” offering is because Microsoft no longer has a mobile device for enterprises. Laptop launches aside, this was an ominous event for Microsoft, largely absent from the conversation as the scope of mobile devices increases.

Buzzword 3 = The Internet of Things

IoT was everywhere at MWC, both in the form of devices and of how to manage and use them. The industry is still working out though how to make sense of critical questions around data management, data governance, security, and application architecture.

The security issues are perhaps worse now thanks to the rise of edge computing, processing data locally before sending the results of local analysis to the cloud for further processing. Edge computing is a necessity.

“You need different layers of data processing,” explained Norbert Heusser at Cisco IoT Cloud Strategy. “The typical two-tier architecture you see in most IoT solutions, sensor and cloud, is not suitable for a lot of use cases.”

The problem is that as the amount of data increases, it is wasteful and inefficient to send everything across the internet. Local processing lets you send summary data confirming normal operation, or more data in case of anomalies. “Imagine a car sending 10 to 20 times per second, speed, position, angle of wheels, and so on. Do you really want, on a four-lane highway, all this data sent to the cloud?” asks Heusser.

The downside of edge computing, though, is the proliferation of capable devices that are vulnerable to exploits.

Finally, buzzwords four and five. What about Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)? They were both there at MWC, but less prominent than one or two years ago. On the VR side, it seems that enthusiasm for big goggles and isolation from the real world is not as big as the industry once hoped. AR remains a powerful concept, but at the level of translating menus or adding random bits of data to the view of the outside world through your smartphone camera, so not all that exciting.

MWC will be back in Barcelona in 2019 and guess what? It will be all about 5G and IoT. ®

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