The Mobile World Congress, which kicked off on Monday, is the annual event where everyone who hates Apple goes to grouse about their profits and point out Apple's lack of real progress. That's pretty much everyone who is anyone, aside from Apple itself, which also is at the event.
Much like CES often does, MWC tends to spin pretty hard toward the "I hate Apple, I'd like to be Apple" crowd of competitors. What makes this year different is the level of technology advancements that will be shown, with an emphasis on those tied to the rollout of 5G, which initially will not be accessible to Apple.
I'll give you an idea of what's likely to appear at the show and point out one of the big 5G problems that people mostly aren't aware of yet (but AT&T and IBM are). It actually could lead to the strongest argument yet to abandon the iPhone.
I'll close with my product of the week: the nReal Light mixed reality glasses -- one of the headsets that will be announced as connecting to Qualcomm's big extended reality initiative at MWC.
The Biggest 5G Problem
With any major rollout of a technology, there are issues. With 5G, you must swap out both the cell tower technology and the phones. You have to find compelling reasons to fund this change at both ends, and you must understand the network loading so you can avoid bottlenecks.
The upgrade process on the cell towers has started, and there isn't a single carrier that doesn't understand that failure to move aggressively with 5G will mean losing customers. This is because 5G provides data rates in line with wired networks and is particularly powerful at the network's edge, making massive difference for folks using data there.
In addition, and discussed far less, is the massive reduction in latency, making coming initiatives like the Microsoft Virtual Desktop possible, and giving users the opportunity to run full Windows apps on their phones and connected tablets, regardless of OS.
So that gives us the towers and the compelling reasons for people to upgrade -- but what about the data ecosystem? This issue came up at IBM Think earlier this month, when AT&T and IBM both pointed out that the data demands from 5G will force a change from centralized data centers to distributed data centers placed nearer the users because of network loading.
You see, low latency and high bandwidth at the end points does you no good if there are bottlenecks in the networks connected to the massive centralized data centers that have been built all over the world.
For small nations, this likely won't be huge problem, but for large countries like the U.S. and China, it will mean a huge change in the network topology at a national level. This also means that if you are already near one of these existing mega data centers and an early 5G deployment, you are likely to see the biggest initial benefit from 5G.
Qualcomm's Move to AR/VR as a Smartphone Feature
Qualcomm on Monday announced a major initiative adding headsets to smartphones and enhancements to the standalone AR/VR product efforts as well. Much like earphones are a major component of smartphone use for many, these initially hard-wired glasses will allow you to better interact with your phone while leaving both hands free and your eyes much more focused on where you are going.
These headsets will do a lot. They'll give you a better entertainment viewing experience when you have down time. They'll also improve navigation and voice-to-text instant messaging (you can see the text or IM and respond to it verbally).
When using a headset with a camera, you'll be able to blend what is real with what is virtual (like being able to see competitive online prices for items you are looking at while out shopping or even viewing on your computer screen. These headsets should better integrate the meta information in the cloud to the real world around you.They could even notify you if you were walking into a dangerous area and automatically guide you out even if it was too dark to see.
The low latency high-bandwidth performance of 5G will make it far easier to pull even rich information from the cloud. It is these headsets that are the most likely to drive incremental high bandwidth use. Given Qualcomm's war with Apple, these headsets likely won't work with iPhones.
At Mobile World Congress, most of what you see will be tied to the 5G rollout, and the new hardware and services related to the rollout. This is an increasing issue for Apple, which isn't expected to launch new 5G phones until late in 2020. The new 5G phones will effectively obsolesce any pre-existing iPhone, so why would anyone buy a new 4G LTE phone during the 5G ramp at the high end?
Granted, we did have the 5G E effort from AT&T, but a lot of folks have been making fun of it. Doesn't an attempt to trick people into buying a 4G phone that has been branded improperly amount to fraud?)
Perhaps of greater consequence, Apple's war with Qualcomm will have significant repercussions on its already declining sales, and Apple won't be alone. I expect any company that launches a high-end phone without 5G support will find sales volume tepid at best, because people willing to buy at high price points likely will want to avoid looking stupid when their expensive new device prematurely becomes obsolete.
It isn't just phones, either. You'll see service enhancements from companies like Microsoft tied to Azure (announced Sunday) that will make use of this capability, unique never-before-seen hardware, and even new entertainment offerings. Watch for gaming and commercial apps (like remote medical) that will make use of this significantly increased performance and impressively low latency.
You are going to see a number of foldable screen devices at Mobile World Congress, but this technology is still pretty raw, and I doubt it will do any real damage to iPhone sales directly. Still, it is yet another technology coming to market that Apple is unlikely to have.
Ironically, given that the OS needs to be changed to use it, Apple is likely the firm that could have done foldable screens best, since it owns its OS. So, this is a missed opportunity, but not a critical one, and it probably qill take a year to get the price of this technology down below nosebleed territory anyway. I think this is one of those cases when it is better to do it right than to go early, and the first set of products don't yet look "right" to me.
Mobile World Congress almost always has been a predominantly anti-Apple event, but up to now, it really hasn't done much damage to Apple. This time is different, however. Apple is out of position for the 5G rollout that founds the event, and it is at war with the leading U.S. 5G technology vendor, Qualcomm.
Further, Apple technology vendor Intel has been having severe execution issues (particularly following allegations that it stole Qualcomm's intellectual property. If true, this won't end well for either Apple or Intel).
Still, it's likely we will see the beginning of a reversal of centralized data center placement, a significant increase in extended reality headsets that can be used with smartphones, some impressive new 5G smartphones, and some wild devices with foldable screens that only the most tech forward of us will buy. It should be an interesting week.
The issues with AR and VR come down to expensive hardware, a lack of compelling content, uneven setup experiences, and way too much crap in the market. Among the products that will be showcased this week, coupled with Qualcomm's announcement on Monday, are the nReal Light AR Glasses.
Launched at CES this year, these glasses have a dedicated Qualcomm processor. At a US$1,000 price point, they aren't a cheap date, but they provide adequate performance and a relatively attractive glasses-like form factor. My expectation is that the price for these will come down sharply if you connect them to a new smartphone that supports Qualcomm's new extended reality specification.
The glasses operate at HD resolution, which is less than I'd like, but certainly adequate for most AR types of tasks, including viewing videos and playing games. The range of view looks pretty good at 52-degrees, and it has two cameras so that the device can see what you are seeing and better integrate the virtual images it is rendering with the real objects you have in view. (You can get a sense of what is possible with the glasses with this video).
These are the first high-quality extended reality glasses that appear to be attractive enough for people to wear, though they are tethered. Coming up with a way to carry your phone comfortably while connected to the glasses likely will be somewhat problematic.
Because the nReal Light AR Glasses are a big step into our coming extended reality future, they are my product of the week. (They are due to hit the market in the third quarter of this year.)