February 27, 2014

At the Mobile World Congress, a battle to keep up with change

Posted by: in Europe

The consensus at 2013’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was that “change is happening fast, and at an astonishing scale,” as we wrote back then. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since last year. Speakers and attendees routinely noted how dizzyingly fast technology and the business landscape are evolving and how quickly consumers are embracing new platforms and services. Categories that are marginal one year might well be pervasive the next—as wearables were this year, for instance. At one panel, an audience member requested predictions for five years out, but the moderator amended it to three years: In this world, five years might as well be five decades. (As it happens, WhatsApp, the disruptor of the moment, launched exactly five years ago, as CEO Jan Koum pointed out at one session.)

“It has taken us two decades to build relationships with millions of people, but new players are building those relationships with hundreds of millions in just a few years,” said Jo Lunder, CEO of Vimpelcom, one of the globe’s biggest telecoms, alluding to the runaway popularity of WhatsApp and several other messaging apps. Facebook’s mega-billion-dollar deal to buy WhatsApp signaled just how high the stakes are and how urgent the need is for established names to keep up. To a packed crowd, Mark Zuckerberg explained Facebook’s massive outlay by saying that WhatsApp “is on a path to connecting more than a billion people, and there are very few services in the world that can reach that level.” Meanwhile, Koum announced that voice is coming to his messaging service, which he said has about a third of a billion users daily.

New threats to the status quo are arising on all sides. Jon Matonis of the Bitcoin Foundation asserted in a talk this morning that the virtual currency is the “quintessential disruptor.” When it comes to mobile payments, Bitcoin could disrupt Visa, Mastercard and Paypal—and “the very nature of monetary authority,” he declared. A Bitcoin app bypasses not only mobile operators, banks and other financial heavyweights but also governments.

The four-day Congress, this year attended by a record 85,000 people, encompasses all forms of mobile technology and thus is ballooning to accommodate the Internet of Things and related topics like smart cities, smart homes and connected cars, which dotted the vast exhibitor hall. “We are now living in a world where every device, machine or appliance can be wirelessly connected to the Internet,” said Hyunmi Yang of the GSMA, the industry group that hosts the MWC, in a press release. (Actually, it’s more than devices and machines: Take the new category of ingestibles.)

The GSMA estimates that machine-to-machine connections will reach 250 million this year, but soon that number will be in the billions, making the IoT an increasingly dominant theme. “Two years ago, I had to buy you a drink to talk about the Internet of Things. Now your board of directors comes to Cisco to ask for advice,” said keynote speaker John Chambers, Cisco’s dynamic CEO, to the audience of mobile operators and other major players. The money involved is already in the stratosphere, with Google’s recent $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest signaling an inflection point to many here.

We’re hurtling toward a world steeped in and vastly changed by mobile technology. “Mobile has already surpassed any other form of computing in importance for consumers and tech companies alike,” notes a Mashable report on the Congress. One speaker said that today’s kids will wonder why there was a Mobile World Congress at all; it will seem as odd as a convention on something as broad as electricity. “Mobile has become like air and water—ubiquitous and pervasive to every aspect of digital and brand building, and business in general,” said Nestlé chief digital officer Pete Blackshaw at a parallel event in Barcelona, the Mobile Media Summit.

Stay tuned for our annual mobile trends report, due in April. To see our learnings from last year’s MWC, find “13 Mobile Trends for 2013 and Beyond” here.

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