Let’s face it, Mobile World Congress isn’t about the mobile any more

As over 108,000 attendees from 208 countries filed into the echoing halls of Mobile World Congress last week,  I was reminded of the old First World War chant, sung by the soldiers on the front lines in a tone of heavy irony: “We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here!”

Every year, Mobile World Congress positions itself as the world’s meeting place for the Mobile industry. That’s OK. I get it. But every year, I increasingly wonder, whether it’s really still all about the “mobile world” after all.

The fact is that MWC is slowly but surely losing its reason for existing as a mobile-focused event.

A 20 minute taxi drive away from the Gran Fira of MWC is the strangely named 4YFN (“Four Years From Now”). This conference resembles your average future-focused startup conference these days: there’s a pitching stage, a main stage for speakers and panels to pontificate, an exhibition hall — the usual. But although claiming to attract a healthy 20,000 people, it’s oddly removed from Mobile World Congress, even though anyone who has an entrance pass to MWC also has full access to 4YFN. All the devices which are unveiled at MWC, will eventually run the apps and cloud services which the startups down the road are producing. And yet, they are stuck back in the city. I hope the rumours are true that next year they will co-locate 4YFN in a new, large, annexe at the main MWC exhibition area.

For slowly but surely, the issues that are discussed at MWC, are gradually resembling the solutions and startups showcased at 4YFN.

Take for example IoT and VR. Both featured heavily at 4YFN and MWC, which makes one wonder why they were so far apart.

Japanese firm Soracom used 4YFN to launch their IoT platform in Europe. Brands like Nestle and Sabadell sponsored 4YFN and the former showcased a coffee machine that lets you choose how much milk and how strong of a drink you want from your mobile. Meanwhile, car brand SEAT hosted a virtual reality experience. Just down the road in another hall people were literally queuing up at Samsung’s booth to check out the VR experiences on offer.

In fact, the sheer proliferation of things which were decidedly “not mobile” shows the event might be moving on.

This year reflected less of an interest in yet another rectangular piece of metal and glass, but a huge variety of things. There was a Graphene Pavilion, Internet of Things Pavilion and spaces for VR/AR, robotics and drones. Chinese company DJI unveiled its first line of UAVs designed for commercial use, the Matrice 200 series, for instance. There was even a space for artificial intelligence companies.

As you can see, MWC is no longer about just the mobile phone. So why put all the emphasis on that?

Even the venerable Nokia (the real one, not the HMD-owned phone brands) isn’t about mobile phones any more, having repositioned itself in VR hardware, Health and IoT.

Mobile World Congress is no longer just about mobile phones, it’s about a range of things: general connectivity as well as the devices and services which will connect our world in the future.

At MWC, the press interest wasn’t just about a new Android handset as whether the maker had done a deal to pre-install Google’s voice-driven Assistant software. No self-respecting handset maker could even show their face if that was not the case.

In fact, it’s not as if it’s even still the place for big launches in mobile. A few big global smartphone companies stayed away. Xiaomi was absent. Samsung, embarrassed by the Note 7 debacle last year, simply said the Galaxy S8 was coming next year. There were no new announcements about any more Google Pixel handsets. (Apple of course, hosts its own conferences). When the dust settles, we’ll all realise that the re-launch of the nostalgia-inducing Nokia 3310 by HMD was simply a publicity stunt for its other phones. Being particularly dumb for a dumb feature phone, I predict they will sell almost none. No matter. It will have done its job.

So, given that it’s 10 years since the launch of the iPhone, an event which completely transformed the mobile industry, and created an entirely new category of startups, it’s surely time to re-think how we approach the events which talk about this industry.

The old MWC used to be relevant when we cared about our signal dropping. But do we really discuss that any more? No.

Yes, 5G will be 100 times faster than 4G LTE. 5G will track cars, track drones, make streaming faster. But today we discuss what we can do with these devices, and the connectivity is taken for granted. Twenty years ago people thought the internet would be run over the PSTN. Now the PSTN is effectively run over the Internet.

The smartphone is no longer just the only consumer proposition out there. Large vendors need more peripheral devices for growth, and consumers want them, from earpieces, to projectors and communication hubs like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The truth is that MWC should switch its focus from OEMs selling to telcos, to OEMs directly addressing the innovation ecosystem. Sure, that might include telcos, but it’s not just about them any more.

Exhibition halls focusing on exhibitors hoping to sell their wares around mobile infrastructure (cell towers, switches, plastics and glasses for the phones) should be consigned to some other annexes. Since software is eating the world, let it eat the mobile world as well (as I predicted five years ago, here on TechCrunch).

Finally, the brands that appear at both the MWC and 4YFN events love to trumpet their connection with innovation and startups. But what we actually need them to be coaxed into is acquisitions. It’s only that which would really supercharge the tech ecosystem.