Mobile World Congress 2015: An executive summary

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MWC is over for another year, and as usual there's plenty of gadgetry and mobile ecosystem developments to mull over. Here are the highlights.

Last week, the newswires, tech press and sections of the mainstream media were full of announcements and unveilings from Barcelona, as the GSMA's annual agenda-setting event, Mobile World Congress (MWC), hit Catalonia's capital city.

This year, according to the GSMA, MWC has set "another new record for the mobile industry's premier event", with over 93,000 visitors (delegates, exhibitors, contractors and media) and more than 2,000 exhibiting companies covering 100,000 square metres of exhibition and hospitality space. Apart from the myriad company stands, there were appearances from leading CEOs, including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, plus an IoT-focused Innovation City and a programme aimed at mobile start-ups called 4 Years From Now.

Although some of the headline announcements were widely leaked, including the new flagship smartphones from HTC (One M9) and Samsung (Galaxy S6/S6 Edge), MWC 2015 still offered its fair share of surprises. Here's a selection of the highlights.

Popularity contest

Let's start with a look at the most popular (or most talked-about) brands at MWC 2015, as revealed by social media statistics from Hotwire's Insights and Analytics:

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mwc-2015-brands.jpg
Source: Hotwire's Insights and Analytics

As well as unveiling their new flagship handsets, both HTC and Samsung announced new virtual-reality headsets — combinations that propelled these two vendors into the top spots on the graph.

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The HTC One M9 and HTC Vive.
Images: HTC (left), CNET (right)

HTC's double whammy of the evolutionary One M9 and the possibly revolutionary Vive VR headset (which uses SteamVR technology from Valve) tipped the balance — for the Twitterati anyway. HTC also announced its first wearable device, a fitness band called the HTC Grip.

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Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, and Gear VR Innovator Edition
Images: Samsung (left) and CNET (right)

Samsung, meanwhile, was more adventurous with its Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge handsets, ditching plastic for metal-and-glass chassis materials, giving up on both battery removability and MicroSD storage expansion, introducing a curved-edge screen (on the S6 Edge) and powering both devices with its own 64-bit octa-core Exynos 7420 SoC. Samsung's VR announcement at MWC was an evolution of its existing Gear VR headset (a collaboration with Oculus), which only supported the Note 4 handset: the new version of the Gear VR Innovator Edition will support the more mainstream Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. Noticeable by their absence from Samsung's MWC 2015 lineup were any new Gear smartwatches to go with the new phones — which the Wall Street Journal speculated might have something to do with waiting to see how the market receives Apple's Watch (as at CES, Apple was the proverbial elephant in the room at MWC). Samsung did, however, announce a rival mobile payment service to Apple Pay, called Samsung Pay (a rebadge of its LoopPay acquisition).

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Huawei Watch and Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet.
Images: Huawei (left) and CNET (right)

Moving down the brand-popularity chart, Huawei unexpectedly launched an impressive Android Wear smartwatch (Huawei Watch, in another naming nod to Apple), along with a couple of fitness bands. Sony's main splash was with the slimline, waterproof 10.1-inch Xperia Z4 Tablet, which looks like a serious Android competitor to Apple's iPad Air 2. Also new from Sony was the mid-range Xperia M4 Aqua smartphone, but there was no sign of a new flagship Z4 handset.

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Lumia 640. Image: Microsoft

Microsoft's headline announcement came from devices and services head Stephen Elop, who took to the stage to show off a pair of affordable Lumia smartphones, the 5-inch Lumia 640 and 5.7-inch 640XL, which will come with a one-year subscription for Office 365 for the phone plus one other device. The forthcoming Windows 10 was naturally prominent in Elop's keynote, during which a neat Universal Foldable Keyboard also made an appearance.

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LG's webOS-based Urbane LTE
Image: CNET

One of the main Android-related stories from MWC 2015 was its absence from a product — the LG Watch Urbane LTE, a smartwatch running webOS in order to enable features like on-board phone calls and text messages, and NFC payment, that Android Wear doesn't yet support (LG also announced the Android Wear-based LG Watch Urbane).

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Lenovo Vibe Shot
Image: Lenovo

Bang in the middle of the most-mentioned-on Twitter graph (perhaps partly fueled by the company's recent adware scandal) was Lenovo, which introduced the intriguing Vibe Shot, a "camera/smartphone crossover device" with an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, a 16-megapixel rear camera and a six-piece modular lens, plus hardware enhancements for low-light photography, optical image stabilisation and a dedicated shutter button. Lenovo also announced a trio of new tablets: the 10.1-inch TAB 2 A10-70 and 8-inch TAB 2 A8, both Android-based, and the 8-inch Atom-powered MIIX 300, which runs Windows 8.1.

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BlackBerry Leap
Image: BlackBerry

BlackBerry, still searching for a niche in the iOS/Android-dominated mobile landscape, announced a new all-touch handset, the mid-range, 5-inch Leap, but perhaps more importantly revealed plans for a BlackBerry Experience Suite that will package up distinctive BlackBerry features like the Hub messaging portal, virtual keyboard and security capabilities for use on iOS, Android and Windows platforms. The company also announced a tie-up with Samsung's Knox security platform, integrating its WorkLife and SecuSUITE services.

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Wireless (Qi) charging from Ikea
Image: Wireless Power Consortium

Leading mobile chip-maker Qualcomm was active at MWC, previewing its next-generation Snapdragon 820 SoC, which will feature its Zeroth 'cognitive computing' platform that, for example, can speed up image searching by enabling smart cameras that can recognise scenes and objects, and read text and handwriting. Qualcomm also unveiled Snapdragon Sense ID 3D Fingerprint Technology, an ultrasound-based biometric authentication technology. This FIDO-based system has the key advantages of being able to scan through various smartphone materials (glass, aluminum, stainless steel, sapphire and plastics) and being unaffected by finger contaminants such as sweat, hand lotion and condensation.

Google's main contribution to MWC was the announcement, during senior vp of products Sundar Pichai's keynote, that the search giant is planning to become a wireless service provider — if only on a small scale, comparable with its don't-frighten-the-partners Nexus smartphone effort. Pichai also confirmed that Google is working on a mobile payments platform called Android Pay, an API that will exist alongside the existing Google Wallet service. More is expected on Android Pay at Google I/O in May.

Ikea hit the MWC Twittersphere by announcing a range of wireless-charging lamp bases and tabletops — the Swedish flat-pack giant has adopted the Wireless Power Consortium's Qi standard for this venture, which kicks off in April.

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The smartphone as pocket-watch: Monohm's Firefox OS-powered Runcible.
Image: CNET

Firefox brings up the rear of the brand-mentions graph in 15th place, perhaps in part because Firefox OS runs on what's arguably the most intriguing device announced at MWC 2015: the Monohm Runcible. A circular pocket-watch-sized device with a wooden back, the hardware-upgradable Runcible stands well apart from the smartphone crowd — it lacks a home screen and the ability to run apps, for a start. We'll watch its development with interest.

MWC 2015 and business

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Silent Circle's BlackPhone 2
Image: Silent Circle

Looking beyond the gadgets, there were plenty of MWC stories with significance for businesses and enterprises, including progress towards next-generation 5G connectivity, which will need to handle not just smartphones but all manner of IoT devices with different requirements in terms of latency, power, speed and capacity. Privacy and security looms ever larger in the mobile world, and was discussed by a panel of industry luminaries at MWC. Meanwhile, private communications specialist Silent Circle unveiled plans for a BlackPhone 2 smartphone and a BlackPhone+ tablet. Finally, no big industry gathering would be complete without a new industry consortium, and Box, Cisco, AirWatch, Workday and Xamarin duly obliged with the App Configuration for Enterprise (ACE), which aims to deliver a standard, scalable way to configure and secure enterprise apps.

Roll on MWC 2016

This year's Mobile World Congress brought the usual mix of eye-catching smartphones and gadgets, plus announcements from chip-makers, OS vendors, mobile operators and other mobile ecosystem players. Already, there's plenty for industry-watchers to chew on for the rest of the year.

A word of warning: next year, MWC is a week earlier (22-25 February 2016), giving tech followers even less time to recover from CES (6-9 January 2016).

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