Ausdroid was only in Barcelona for three days for Mobile World Congress 2016; Sunday for press day, during which we attended conferences held by Huawei (our trip sponsor), LG, ZTE and Samsung. On Monday and Tuesday we attended MWC 2016 proper, including booth tours and presentations from the likes of Sony, LG, Alcatel, Lenovo, Nextbit and others which I can’t recall at present.

There’s a number of thoughts that struck me while roaming the halls of Fira Gran Via. The first was an easy discovery, that mobile is fast becoming so much more than just about mobiles. I then came to consider the global context in which Australia’s mobile and tech marketplace exists … and it is both obvious and incredible. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, was the greater realisation of where this is all headed — the growth of the mobile ecosystem, the global context in which this transformation is taking place, and the journey that lies ahead.

The Rise of the Ecosystem

Indeed, in 2016 as a continuation of previous years’ trends, mobile devices are becoming fancier and more expensive in equal measure. With Samsung’s flagship smartphones starting just shy of $1,200 AUD, the flagship is fast moving beyond (or further beyond) the reach of the average tech consumer. While these prices do become a little more accessible with carrier subsidies and payment options over twelve, twenty four or even longer terms these days, they still represent a more and more significant investment.

It is perhaps with this in mind that manufacturers are realising there’s more to mobile than actual mobile phones. With such an investment of money comes a requisite investment of heart and mind; it’s a well-established fact that the more one must expend to acquire a thing, the more value and passion one necessarily develops to go alongside it.

Put simply, if you spend a lot money to buy a car, you become (in a way) an ambassador for the brand. You justify the purchase to yourself, and to others, and you extol the virtues of your purchase. The same is true in mobile, and manufacturers are realising that they can benefit from this in an extended ecosystem to go with their devices. Samsung and LG both spent much time at their respective press conferences talking about their ecosystems. This isn’t new for either player — they’ve had ecosystems before — but they are now starting to talk about these ecosystems with their consumers in a more up-front way.

The ecosystem is no longer the smartphone with perhaps a tablet or a wearable. No, the ecosystem is now your lifestyle, including virtual reality experiences, better cameras, accessories, and even drones that pair with your smartphone to allow you to do more, interact more, and better share the joy of your life with others.

This may sound optimistic and perhaps even fanciful, but it’s clear that LG, Samsung and others see technology heading in this way … and they’re probably right. Sony, too, is recognising the growth of the ecosystem and the benefits that this provides to its customers. No longer content to merely release a smartphone, Sony unveiled a raft of concept devices that may accompany its mobile devices in future, including smart agents, cameras and earpieces designed to be worn all day.

This all circles back to investment; we are investing more money, time and passion into our technology acquisitions, and we expect more in return. Perhaps we’ve reached peak innovation in mobile, perhaps we aren’t quite there yet, but the new mobile ecosystem could be the next evolution in mobile lifestyle and technology.

We Are But Small Fish

We like to think in Australia that we are, for some intents and purposes, the centre of the known universe. We aren’t alone in this; many countries and their citizens fall into the same way of thinking.

To put things in context, as noted above, Australia’s population of 20-something million is not all that significant, and this translates to the amount of interest and priority that Australia sees from a technology perspective as well. We all know this — China, the US, and India, and other parts of Asia are the most populous around the world, and it’s little secret that they, too, share the priority in terms of investment and focus of large manufacturers going forward.

For all the noise that manufacturers make about their excitement to launch into Australia, we are not — I think — anyone’s first priority, and this seeems unlikely to change. We are often a first-launch market for many larger brands, including Apple and Samsung, but there are many other brands that either don’t prioritise Australia, or don’t (directly) enter Australia at all.

There are the brands in Australia that we know — the Samsungs, LGs, Sonys, HTCs, and Huaweis. There’s the brands that don’t have the mindshare yet, but they’re getting it — ZTE, Alcatel, Oppo and others. There’s brands that aren’t in Australia, but are known well enough to us — Xiaomi is the biggest that comes to mind, though there are others. After all these come the brands that aren’t in Australia, aren’t likely to be, and cater to international audiences only … and I was stunned, if not floored, by how many of these there are.

It was on the Android Pin hunt around MWC that I came across some of these brands, and it’s perhaps a sign of my insular thinking that I hadn’t turned my mind to the existence of these companies. Vestel is the largest and msot promminent in my recollection; here’s a company that’s in Turkey, and it’s huge. They have their own range of Android lines. Not just one, but many, and they’re excellent. In terms of development, breadth of range and design, they’re probably akin to Alcatel, and they are making brilliant devices. Though I’d planned to spend moments in their booth, I wound up there for a lot longer.

We do well to remember that Australia is a small fish in the big technology pond, and though there are brands big here, there are equally big brands that we’ve never heard of.

The Future of Mobile is Amazing

Initially I was a little sceptical. The buzz about IoT and 5G around MWC was almost cliche, to the point that I had begun — in the lead up to the conference — to tune it out almost completely. This was to my significant disadvantage.

Discussion of technology in Australia isn’t complete without discussion about things like the National Broadband Network and what benefits it might realise for us as a country. Until I came to MWC, I suppose I was more than a little concerned that the direction the NBN was taking wasn’t right … and the promises we had been made by Labor’s NBN were never to be realised.

Post MWC, I find myself not the least bit concerned. I’ve never been accused of being a Capital L Liberal, and probably never will be, but I’m coming around to the idea that the NBN might be outdated before it’s even halfway through being built. The decisions made by the Liberal government of the day to (essentially) scupper Labor’s NBN plans, and build something less ambitious might be fair from a world view where wired networking really isn’t relevant anymore.

I know, and I realise, that this sounds ridiculous when you consider the state of mobile in Australia today; we have 4G networks, some of them greater than others, which are still constrained by relatively small data allowances and (comparatively) slow data transfer speeds. After all, who wouldn’t want a 100mbps Internet connection at home when we barely see a quarter of this on the go, and even if we did, we’d blast through our mediocre monthly allowances in less than a day.

We need to be a little more forward thinking.

Huawei is conducting wireless trials both in Australia and around the world to investigate and develop the next generation of networks. 4.5G networks promise speeds of up to and over 1gbps over the air, within existing spectrum allocations. 5G promises much more. Other enterprise and infrastructure companies — the likes of which include Ericcson, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia and others — are engaged in this R&D as well, and we’re likely to see the emergence of these networks within the next year or two.

So, too, will our concept of what a mobile plan should include evolve. Cast your minds back a few years to the emergence of 3G, where data inclusions on mobile were often measured in megabytes (and not many of them). I recall not all that long ago having a monthly data allowance of just 500MB, and paying a bit for it. Nowadays, I pay about the same, and have 12GB a month of data (yes, that’s 24 times as much data). If we extrapolate this out, we’re likely to see data inclusions on mobile that will rival the inclusions we’ve come to expect on our wired network connections, and at speeds that will make our archaic network of ADSL 1, ADSL 2, Cable and even NBN networks look prehistoric.

In a world powered by 4.5G and 5G networks, wired networks may simply become irrelevant. The Internet of Things is wireless, and it is powered by technologies promised by 4.5/5G networks. This isn’t just some utopic future which the oracles of old would’ve told their believers about. This is a future that’s basically here today, in laboratories and real-world test environments around the world. Huawei and Optus are testing these technologies in Australia right now — they had one such successful trial in Newcastle (of all places) in just weeks gone by.

Am I being optimistic? I think not. Again, look back a couple of years to a time before we had 4G, when the fastest 3G connections topped out at a couple of megabits per second. We’ve seen not only the introduction of 4G LTE networks, but their evolution too, and in the space of only a few years. We are in an era TODAY where mobile networks can, and do, operate at speeds over 100mbps, and we have real-world applications that can — and do — benefit from the technology that is around us already.

Ladies and gentlemen, 4.5G and 5G networks — and everything that comes along with them — aren’t mysteries of the future. They are under active development today, and the narrative at the moment isn’t keeping up.

Huawei has a small number of journalists it hosted to MWC 2016, and I write this article on the way to our second destination, the Netherlands. There, we will see further examples of Huawei’s technology for advanced networks in place, today, in real world situations. Smart Stadiums might sound boring, and I am sure to some of you they are, but they are anything but; they are a demonstration of how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, and how quickly we are heading to (and accelerating towards) that place. I look forward to bringing you some more information about these innovations tomorrow.

This writer was naive to think that perhaps Huawei had erred in inviting Ausdroid (a niche consumer tech news site) on a trip such as this. On the contrary. Huawei and companies like it have a huge role to play in our mobile future, and nowhere has this been more evident than Mobile World Congress.

This writer travelled to Barcelona and the Netherlands courtesy of Huawei.

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    Re “The Rise of the Ecosystem” I paid $999 for my 32GB GS6 last year. They threw in a pair of headphones that were worth $129. Because I use and enjoy the headphones I consider the real cost of the phone to me to be $870. This year Samsung want $1149 for their GS7. This year they are ‘throwing in a VR headset worth $169’. So, the real cost of the phone to me would be $980 if I was interested in VR. But I’m not. I’m not normally one to complain about price. But when you build the cost… Read more »

    Phill Edwards

    Great article, well done! I disagree with your optimism for wireless replacing wired, though. Too many years have been spent over-promising on wireless. One day you may be right, but it won’t be wide enough, reliable enough or affordable enough for many years to come.

    Just because technology is available doesn’t result in it becoming widespread.