MWC 2023: the new normal seems a lot like the old normal

MWC 2023 barcelona velocity
VELOCITY! Image credit: Jouko Ahvenainen

Mobile World Congress 2023 is under way. This is the first MWC since 2019 where there is no need to wear a face mask, and many Asians, including Chinese, are back at the event. The GSMA expects 75,000 participants this year. The weather is very cold in Barcelona this year, so it is good that there is no need to escape the face mask rules outside.

Generally, this year’s event is a traditional mix, or at least the mix we have seen now for the last few years. There is the main area for the telcos, network and hardware vendors, and then there is the startup area 4YFN. The atmosphere is quite different in these two areas: one has big names, invitation-only areas and not-too-active people; the other has a faster-pace, active entrepreneurs and investors in Patagonia vests.

An interesting new initiative is GSMA Open Gateway, a framework of universal network APIs that the GSMA says is designed to provide universal access to operator networks for developers. Eight network APIs are available at launch, including Device Status, Number Verify, Device Location Quality of Demand and SIM Swap. The initiative is supported by 21 big-name mobile operators, including Axiata, Bharti Airtel, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, KDDI, KT, Singtel, Telstra, and Vodafone.

This makes sense in that the developer ecosystem is nowadays very fundamental for most services and platforms. In that way, however, we can also ask if this is too little too late. If operators had been more open in the past ten years, their networks would be much more integrated with many services that currently just use networks as a bit pipe. The first APIs are quite technical, but for example, they can be useful for some security functions.

The paradox of Nokia and open APIs

As is tradition, Nokia made its first announcements on Sunday before MWC officially opened. Among other things, it unveiled a new logo and its future strategic pillars.

MWC 2023 nokia
Tunnelling through the Nokia booth to its … interesting new logo. Image credit: Jouko Ahvenainen

With its newly reimagined brand, Nokia wants to distance itself further from its mobile phone era. Its six strategic pillars are quite typical corporate-style strategy items: technology leadership, expansion in enterprise customer segment, being a leader in its focus areas, monetizing IPR’s, implementing new business models and developing ESGs into a competitive advantage. Many big technology companies could have the same pillars. The new logo has received mixed reviews, as new logos always do. Some joke that the ‘N’ describes Nokia’s mobile phone business: fast growth and then almost as fast decline.

Seeing both open APIs and Nokia at MWC illustrates somehow a paradox of the telecoms world. Officially, big companies like to emphasize the importance of partners, developers and openness. But in practice, they have quite little to offer. And many big companies don’t even want normal visitors to come to their stands. Nokia is a good example: most of their stand is invitation only. It doesn’t really give a feeling that they want to be more open; it’s almost as if they don’t want startup guys or developers to come to see what they are doing. But it’s been like this for awhile, and I have written about it previously too, so nothing seems to change.

Ethics and metaverse hype

Meanwhile, over at 4YFN, GSMA wants to emphasize ethics and present new startups especially focused on education and inclusive finance. The event needs these nice themes for PR. However, the biggest impact the event can make is if it really helps startups to get investors, customers and partners. Otherwise, these nice statements are just PR. I remember the big sustainability theme at the show a few years ago, when – for example – Kazakhstan Telecom hosted a major media event about its focus on crypto mining thanks to cheap energy, even though over 80% of energy in Kazakhstan at the time came from fossil fuels.

The FOMO (fear of missing out) factor also seems to be in play as usual. In previous shows, we’ve seen telcos generating a lot of hype about AI, blockchain and NFT. In MWC 2023, of course, telcos are still making big statements about the metaverse. For example, an executive from BT commented that an open and decentralized metaverse is the key to unleashing its full potential. This is most probably true, and it is certainly risky if individual companies can dominate a metaverse. But how do we get “an open and decentralized metaverse” to happen?

The telco world answer is, of course, standardization. The problem is that for telcos, their concept of openness and standardization often means any telco can make it, but it is not open to other parties. So it is very hard to see that telcos could have any major role in the metaverses. Maybe next year, telcos will tell about their ChatGPT plans.

MWC stalwarts: hardware and country stands

There are the usual collection of new mobile phones, new smart watches and new base stations at MWC, along with anything with the word ‘smart’ stamped on it for homes and industries. They offer more capacity, better connections and new technical features. Nevertheless, it’s hard to find anything that would be really disruptive or totally new. Maybe the most interesting thing related to smartphones was Samsung’s efforts at better sustainability for its phones. For example, they showcased a self-repair tool kit so users can increase the lifetime of their phones.

MWC 2023 samsung self repair kit
At the Samsung booth: a self-repair tool so you can fix your busted smartphone yourself. Or maybe bust it further. Image credit: Jouko Ahvenainen

The country stands in the main show area are as active as ever. They have some smaller companies that got some public funding to come to the show, or are doing something with the big guys. Maybe they are here to use that external travel money and meet some other large companies to partner with. Otherwise, if you want to go to their stand, you need to wake up people there or somehow get their attention when they are chatting on their phones. Of course, there are some exceptions too and for them, it is easy to shine in their neighborhood.

So, on the whole, we have a very traditional MWC this year. I’ll report the more interesting areas in future articles.

Related article: MWC22 wrap: 4YFN steals the show

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