Bring on the mobile weirdness

CES 2019 was a dud. It happens. Some years are more exciting than others. The world of technology ebbs and flows. Time is a flat circle. All that glitters is gold. Only shooting stars break the mold.

MWC, on the other hand — I’ve actually been pretty excited about this show for a while now. The mobile industry is at a crossroads. Smartphone sales have begun to stagnate and recede for the first time since analysts began tracking the things. Heck, this was the year the conference name officially changed from Mobile World Congress to MWC Barcelona.

That sort of sly rebranding takes some of the heavy lifting off the “mobile” bit for what has come to be regarded as the world’s premier smartphone launching pad. Don’t be too surprised to see the show attempt a shift into the broader world of consumer electronics, à la CES or IFA.

Meantime, smartphones are very much still the thing. The devices are still a ubiquitous part of our lives and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. There are a number of reasons for the slowdown in sales, but the primary factors are slowed upgrade cycles and phones have gotten better and new features have become less compelling, coupled with rough economic trends in places like China, which were anticipated to be the primary driver for the category going forward.

The upshot of all of this is a newfound sense of experimentation. Keeping shareholders happy requires constant upward growth, and kickstarting sales will take some compelling reasons to upgrade. This year was the first time, perhaps since the original iPhone, that we’ve seen a radical shift in form factors, with Samsung, Huawei, TCL and Oppo all announcing foldable phones in the last couple of weeks.

Making sure they’re ready for prime time is another question altogether, but I’m definitely on-board for the manner of differentiation they bring. While it’s true that a number of major players all got on the foldable train at roughly the same time, we’ve seen some unique approaches as the industry scrambles to figure out the best way to utilize flexible technology.

The fact is that none of these are going to be big sellers out of the gate — the average price point, which is currently hovering around $2,000, will see to that. Huawei, for one, seems to have tempered its expectations around the category. Mobile chief Richard Yu quite nearly apologized for the price of the Mate X onstage the other day.

But the inability to pay double the price of a flagship smartphone shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of interest, nor should it be used as justification for pulling back on experimentation. In a recent conversation, the CEO of Light discussed how the maturation of the smartphone category could afford smartphone makers the opportunity to better target different user needs.

He was speaking specifically about different camera arrays on the backs of phones, but I don’t see why that can’t apply to the space in broader terms. Plenty of smartphone makers have gotten burned trying to compete with similar products on the same field as Apple or Samsung.

For years, smartphones have constituted one of the very few consistent trends in an otherwise fragmented media landscape. It’s not too hard to imagine smartphones undergoing a similar transformation, in which smartphones are less uniform, but better suited to users’ individual needs.

Of course, it seems just as — if not more — likely that handset makers will ultimately pull the plug on any devices that fail to catch the world on fire. Just look at the recent rumors that Razer has abandoned plans for a third gaming phone.

Here’s hoping, however, that this year’s MWC marks the first step for a mobile space long overdue for a radical shakeup.