The Changing Of The Guard: Mobile World Congress Isn't Just For Telcos Anymore

The central theme of Mobile World Congress 2014 for me was clearly Connected Living. I’ve been attending Mobile World Congress for quite some time — 2006 was my first, the year that it moved to Barcelona from Cannes. And, this year felt different. No longer did the event feel dominated by handset manufacturers and equipment providers. Mobile World Congress is no longer a telecom event; it is clearly a mobile event. Mobility has penetrated every industry and every aspect of life, and that diversity is now clearly felt at the show. The large presence of car manufacturers and the buzz around Facebook indicate a definitive changing of the guard. That shift is ongoing. The proliferation of connected devices, the explosion of over-the-top services and the rise of the data economy will continue to shape the industry. But for me, this year I felt excitement around our new connected lives. 
 
FordThe New Programmable Mobile Device: The Car
“Is this a car show?” was heard from many attendees. And, to a certain extent it was. One of the hottest new devices of the show was the car. Ford figured prominently with one of the largest booths of the show. Ford chose to unveil its new Focus at MWC, ahead of the prestigious Geneva auto show, because it is indeed a programmable mobile device. Developers can build applications integrating car functions and real-time data such as speed, acceleration, odometer, and location. Smartphone users can already download more than 60 Focus-specific apps from the Apple App Store and Android market. Carriers and equipment providers also touted their in-car solutions. Qualcomm, Telefonica, and ZTE all had a car in their booths; AT&T exhibited cars from three manufacturers — Chevrolet, Opel, and Volvo — in their section of the Connected City exhibition.
 
The Connected Home Is Where The (i)Heart(radio) Is
The connected car pulls into the connected garage and triggers a “welcome home” alert that prepares a personalized homecoming: lights on, temperature adjusted, and music tuned in to a preferred selection. The television will even greet you as you walk in the door. Such is the vision for the connected home, exhibited by the likes of Qualcomm and AT&T. While AT&T focuses on home automation — lights, locks, smoke and water detection — Qualcomm emphasizes lifestyle with connected entertainment systems such as speakers, Internet radio, and even your kids’ alarm clocks and teddy bears. Essence, previously a white-label manufacturer of home automation and remote monitoring and care, has rebranded and launched a direct sales effort. “Smart home” solutions have typically been too complicated and just too geeky with a focus on energy and security. This year’s solutions emphasize lifestyle and family, and a plug-and-play approach. Maybe this time the idea will take off. I guess no one really wanted a smart home; they just wanted it to be better connected.
 
A Brush With Connectivity: The Electronic Toothbrush
Truly illustrating the Internet of Things is the eToothbrush. And, there were two of them on exhibit at MWC. Procter & Gamble were well placed in the connected bathroom of the Connected City exhibit. Their electronic toothbrush hardly claims super powers though, providing little more than a stopwatch to countdown the minutes of brushing. Other than the timer, the brush does provide a pressure sensor to tell you if you are brushing too hard. Their selling point is that their app allows the brusher to watch videos while simultaneously watching the countdown. And, that requires the latest Bluetooth, which means having a pricey smartphone next to the sink. But, wait, that’s not all. Oral-B’s toothbrush comes complete with a healthy dose of sticker shock at a price point of $250 or €250 (yes, the same nominal value in both currencies). I am an avid brusher and somewhat obsessed about dental hygiene. But I don’t think I would shell out €250 for the new electronic toothbrush and certainly not €1,000 to equip my whole family.
 
Taking the Show On the Road
The real highlight of the show and of my trip to Barcelona was a smart city tour with the Director of Smart Cities from the City of Barcelona. Starting at Pla del Palau, we toured several blocks, stopping to admire parking sensors, the pneumatic trash cans, Wi-Fi hot spots, a bus stop information kiosk, LED lamps, bike sharing, and connected dumpsters with capacity sensors and RFID tags. Barcelona has opened itself to experimentation, inviting vendors to test their solutions. But that doesn’t mean the city implements everything. Our guide was quick to point out projects that had been pilots and were discontinued as well as projects that had graduated from the pilot stage and were being rolled out across the city. The Wi-Fi network in partnership with Albertis is a great example. A baseline connectivity is provided so as not to compete with the mobile operators and to allow Albertis to upsell more bandwidth. That network, however, extends the connectivity from the city's fiber network and enables city employees, citizens, and tourists to access information and basic services. Finding the business model that works for both the city and the vendor is the key to the success of a project. The connected bus stop is in partnership with JCDecaux. The Wi-Fi network is a partnership with Albertis. And, now the city is currently exploring the use of the location data collected from its Wi-Fi network. The business model is still under study, but the potential for retail and other commercial partnerships is non-trivial. 
 
Mobile World Congress is no longer the domain of telecom operators and equipment manufacturers. It now belongs to everyone. And, that’s exactly the plan of Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org — “Every one of us. Everywhere. Connected.”