Mobile is not everything (and that’s OK)

As I type these words, I am perched on one of the benches in the main thoroughfare of the cavernous venue hosting Mobile World Congress (MWC). Above me is a video screen warning me of the perils of the infamous local pickpockets, so I know I’m definitely in Barcelona!

In its current form, MWC has been the mainstay event of the telecoms business for a decade, and its roots go back to the late 1980s. The slogan of this year’s event is “Mobile is Everything”. I believe this phrase is a symptom of an industry suffering from dangerous strategic drift. Here’s why.

The early days of mobile

During the hyper-growth phase of the mobile industry, it was clear to everybody what the task at hand was. Making phone calls mobile was of obvious use, with enormous take-up of minutes and messages. The addition of data (in narrowband 2G and then broadband 3G formats) grew a “third leg” to the business model, namely megabytes.

The job of 3GSM, which then became MWC, was to coordinate a complex ecosystem: silicon, handsets, equipment, back office and service providers. A “digital bazaar” offered every piece of the value chain in one place.

The breakneck speed of growth gave the event the needed economy of scale. You could meet enough people to coordinate your efforts, helping you to manage the great pace of change of an immature industry. The geographically dispersed nature of both suppliers and clients justified everyone coming to one place.

“Mobile” is reaching its maximum

The industry is now maturing, and is well past its glory days of early growth. We have 4G widely deployed, and 5G is in the wings. Both are incremental rather than revolutionary changes. The retail market for “minutes, messages and megabytes” is saturating.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, mobile operators became used to being masters of their digital universe. MWC’s origins are in that era of optimism. But it’s a nearly decade since the launch of the iPhone, which broke their control forever. Licensed spectrum is no longer enough to guarantee mobile operator relevance (let alone ascendency) in areas like messaging, payments, or enabling APIs.

The high revenue and profit growth has shifted to devices (notably Apple’s) and online services (Google, Amazon, Alibaba, et al). The centre of power has inexorably moved towards platforms that manage and mine the flow of information.

A looming crisis of place and purpose

To me, the slogan “Mobile is Everything” is about assuaging the growing insecurity of the industry about its future role and relevance given these changes. It is not a statement of truth, even by the mendacious standards of marketing.

There is no question MWC is a slick and professional event. As the jamboree of a wealthy industry (and well-funded GSMA) you’d certainly hope so. You also can’t argue with its self-evident size and success. It can undoubtedly continue going in its present format for years to come, just based on its momentum.

The issue now facing the GSMA and its members is: what is the future purpose of MWC? If it did’t exist, would you still invent it? Why should people care to come, apart from a feeling of powerless compulsion?

Real reality trumps virtual reality

The PR star of the MWC show this year is the virtual reality rollercoaster, which even on day 4 has a long queue of waiting riders. You may have also seen in the news an iconic photograph of Mark Zuckerberg walking past goggle-clad ranks of gawpers. This focus on VR was my “jump the shark” moment.

On the left, VR entertainment from Samsung. On the right, polystyrene jumping sharks hanging from the roof from SK Telecom. You simply can’t make this stuff up!

Whilst I am bullish on VR as a technology, its prominence startled me. I realised that MWC has disconnected from the fundamental needs of the customers the industry serves. It’s not even “mobile”, let alone “everything”!

What is “everything” is “real life”: being a parent, community member, worker, carer, and so on. The needs of those users are social, economic, and even political. Whilst they have historically been served well by the “minutes, messages and megabytes” model, that is changing. MWC has not yet reflected this shift.

Life is “everything”

What isn’t a user need is technology for its own sake. I don’t want a unified comms client; I want a means to help me look after my aging parents. That means my future messaging needs are part of an elder care package, and not a separate service. (I certainly don’t have a need for an IM client found down the bottom of the product freezer and reheated in Google’s microwave oven despite the “use by 2010” date.)

The problem that MWC faces is that the value is moving to delivering vertical and contextual experiences. That elder care service isn’t going to be metered in minutes, messages or megabytes. It will be embedded as a part in a solution from another industry, and billed in ways alien to today’s cellular system. Its supplier may not see itself as being about “mobile” at all.

At best, a software-defined network will deliver software-defined circuits with the right software-defined quality to make the voice and video work. The B2B buyer won’t fall for hollow promises of peak bandwidth: they will insist on fitness-for-purpose. This means that the future of mobile is being a component for sale in other people’s jamborees.

“Mobile” is technology, not people

The industry is making some moves to deal with its middle-life crisis, beyond buying a VR sports car to show off in.

For instance the GSMA’s Connected Women programme isn’t just a good deed, it’s also great business sense. But the supporting event was held on the last day in a remote hall. Does anyone in the GSMA understand that services for women in their many roles (especially in the home) are integral to future industry success? This is not a “diversity” tick box! It should be “day 1” headline stuff.

The “mobile” industry is too remote from the people it serves, which is ironic given the nature of communications services is to bring people together. Defining itself by technology alone isn’t a recipe for future relevance.

For instance, MWC’s attendees are 95% reassuring dark suits delivering solid supporting infrastructure. They are overwhelmingly male, to the extent that there were queues for the urinals after lunch. Yet it’s the 5% in provocative jeans or plaid dresses that bring in the much-needed imagination and new ideas.

How to remain relevant?

We can see waves of new technology-driven change lining up to overtake “mobile”. IBM was insistent that “cognitive” is the new “mobile”, and made a good marketing case for it. Whilst MWC had its obligatory share of drones and robots, its roots leave it adrift from where the real action is: the demand-side “big issues” of health, social care, education, environment, etc. These were largely notable by their absence.

Given these changes in society and industry, “mobile” has work to do to justify staying centre-stage. In particular, if the communications industry is to thrive in future, it has to come to terms with the false sense of self-importance that “mobile is everything” embodies. We’re just a piece-part of a bigger product or service puzzle, and likely not even the most important one.

The challenge for the GSMA is to reinvent MWC and inject fresh thinking before it’s all too late. Maybe it should grow a roving event embedded into conferences of vertical industries. Perhaps MWC should “import” key players and partners in each vertical. I am sure there are many ways of refreshing the format.

The haughty attitude of “mobile is everything” presumes the world will always come to us. That risks “mobile” eventually becoming nothing. And that’s not OK.

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