The appeal of Mobile World Congress for startups is starting to wane

It’s hilarious to think that it’s been six years since I wrote that software was starting to eat Mobile World Congress, as the action in the mobile world moved — at the time — deeper and deeper into apps.

In the intervening year’s we’ve seen a huge boom in the startup world, and six years ago companies like Waze were still startups that could take the heat away from the news around the big carriers.

But six years is a lifetime in technology and many of those startups grew into unicorns that were acquired (as Waze was) or IPO’d.

That long ‘app-fever’ run seemed to end at the beginning of last year when other kinds of devices seemed to encroach on the event. We saw the rise of VR and home devices like the Amazon Echo.

But that came before the white-heat of the blockchain and crypto boom, which had been bubbling under un 2016 but finally burst onto the mainstream last Spring.

And since then, the rise of the ‘other’ device world (not the mobile) has continued, while mobile phones themselves are struggling to innovate beyond bigger, nicer screens and maybe gimmicks like the iPhone X’s facial recognition. Meanwhile, it’s AI, IOT and blockchain which is continuing to excite the tech world.

You could see this while traversing the halls of “4YFN”, the side-show-for-startups erected by the GSMA in the old Fira exhibition hall and which — at least from my observations — struggled to get attendees excited.

Gone were the days when I could easily bump into a VC searching for some fresh meat. Mostly what I ran into were corporate-types pursuing the hall for apps they might pre-load onto handsets, or companies punting their ability to BUILD your app for you. How nice of them…

And the over-branding, and formulaic appearance of the hall didn’t help either. Startups are supposed to be about the ‘cutting edge’. What we got at 4YFN was cut-out pieces of cardboard signage.

Where was the oozing innovation, the startup spirit?

Not on any of the stages it seemed. The giant telco Telefonica was given an entire hour to bore us to death about its activities, proving the rumours true that these days 4YFN’s stage can be bought. Who among startups likes to appear on a stage branded by a company like Nestle, better known for biscuits and powdered milk it would hawk to unsuspecting African mothers.

4YFN is no Slush or Pioneers or TNW and definitely no Disrupt.

At best it seemed to be a gathering point for the majority of Spanish-speaking tech.

The other issue is that there was ZERO sign-posting. No categories e.g. Enterprise, or Games, etc. It was like someone just randomly assigned all the booths and said: “There you go, pick any you fancy!”

While many startups were exhibiting under a branded booth, either a city, a country, an accelerator, etc it still made it harder to navigate from a participant point of view.

Perhaps it would be picky to complain about the long queues at the cloakroom or the near-impossible registration process that left one ready for suicide? Let’s leave that to one side.

No, the action at MWC has shifted away from start-ups, back to the biggest tech players, handset makers and the carriers. The action was about 5G, blockchain, smart cities and the rest.

It’s time to face the fact that Mobile World Congress’ appeal for startups is starting to wane, and who knows if it’ll ever be back.

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