MWC 2014: The Times they are Changing – Recap

Before the show, I posted that the nature of MWC has changed a lot over the years. This used to be a show solely focused on selling heavy iron networking equipment, system integration and carrier grade software to the wireless operators. In recent years it has gotten younger and more ‘app’ focused.

This view generated a fair amount of Twitter traffic and responses. Several people, including Benedict Evans, noted that there are really two shows in parallel now. Having thought about this all week, I now view MWC as a dozen shows running in parallel. I work for a semiconductor vendor and spent a lot of time talking about components and supply chain. But from my days as an analyst, I also caught up with many people who never touched on that components world. You can spend the whole week at the show, having dozens of meetings, and stay in just one world. But like some Harry Potter magical realm, there always seems to be another world just slightly out of sight.

To begin with, there are the wireless operators. To a large degree, this is their show. All the major and many of the minor carriers attend. They often come with a large teams of high-level executives to meet their suppliers. Many of the major carriers have large booths with ample meeting space. In some senses, this is a bit odd. Typically, the carriers’ own customers do not attend this show – no consumers attend and big enterprise accounts do not attend in large numbers. Several people commented to me that carrier attendance had altered in recent years. Instead of showing up with a hundred managers, they now only show up with a dozen or so executives. During the bad economic years of 2009-2011, many operators only sent a handful of executives, and those teams are only now starting to pick up again in size.

The second big, related constituency, are the equipment vendors. This includes the giants like Ericsson and Huawei, but also all the smaller system and sub-system providers selling things from session border controllers to antennas and cable. This is really their show. MWC is organized by the GSMA, their industry organization. By my very rough estimate, these groups occupy the largest bloc of floorspace, but this is now a plurality of space, not the overwhelming majority of years past.

The next big group are the handset OEMs. These companies have the largest booths – companies like Samsung, Nokia and LG have enormous booths to show off their wares. Again, they are selling to the operators, but also launch new products and showcase them to the media here. Smaller vendors, especially those from Asia, are scattered over the rest of the Fira. The largest handset vendors often tend to have sister companies that sell network equipment, but increasingly these two divisions occupy separate booths.

Then we have a large contingent of component suppliers who are there to meet the previous group of handset companies. My employer falls into that category. And aside from a few of the biggest chip vendors, these companies now tend to only have meeting rooms. Even when they have booths in high-traffic areas, those booths tend to be closed to walk-in visitors or consist solely of private meeting rooms.

The next big category are the systems integrators. You can tell whose these companies are because their booths are like big blank canvasses. They either have nothing specific on display, or they claim all things to all people – “Making Mobile Better Globally”. I am making fun here, but these companies are in the business of custom projects tailored to specific carriers. As a result, it is hard to get a grasp of what it is they do, but they are probably one of the unsung heroes of the industry, fixing a lot of things or bridging big gaps between theory and daily practice.

There is also a large contingent of software vendors, the global vendors. These companies tend to have a lower profile at the show. They do not typically make big product announcements here. Instead, MWC is a chance for them to reach out to the operators, a large customer vertical for them, but one of many.

I would also add another category of ‘country’ pavilions. Countries, or specific regions, have always had booths at the show promoting the benefits of doing business in their geography. These booths tend to be composed of a government official and dozens of small kiosks or stands with representatives from individual companies based in those regions. This has become a sizable chunk of the show floor – China, Korea, Israel, Great Britain, Canada have all had booths for a long time, but in recent years, we have seen additions from places like Estonia, Morocco, Turkey as well as some of the German Landen. It takes a lot of time to go through these booths, as they usually have at least a dozen companies each. It is a good way for small companies to get access to the show floor, and there are always interesting finds inside.

All of the above groups have been attending the event going back to when it was called 3GSM and held in Cannes. But in recent years, we have seen new constituencies grow considerably.

Perhaps the most over-looked is the press contingent. Most conference attendees do not realize just how big the press rooms are at MWC. The meeting rooms, desks and briefing areas combined take up almost a full hall of space. Once the province of specialty industry press, MWC now draws full TV and newspaper contingents from the whole world’s mainstream media, as well as a massive contingent of bloggers and industry analysts. One very small network equipment vendor I spoke with reported briefing press crews from a dozen different countries. Mobile computing, aka smartphones, are now an important economic force everywhere.

For many years, the app developers lived on the fringes of MWC. Hidden in National pavilions or crammed in the back of the old Fira’s Hall 7, developers were treated as second class citizens, begging for placement on carrier decks. Today, developers are of growing importance. This is best demonstrated by the arrival of developer evangelism booths. Large companies like Intel and Samsung have dedicated booths for the developer outreach programs.

MWC is still an odd fit for developers. It is not quite clear why they are attending. Grabbing the attention of a carrier is no longer necessary or even useful for distribution. This ambivalence is reflected by the fact that most developers are still relegated to the back of the venue in Hall 8. But this has just created an alternative universe (as Benedict implied). You can reach Hall 8 through a separate entrance, with its own cab line (very handy at the end of the day). I got the sense that many of the companies here spent the whole show completely cut off from the rest of the event, with no need to stray down to the other halls.

Truth be told, much of this hall was dedicated to advertising networks. This is probably the largest continent in Hall 8. I have commented elsewhere about the intense competition in the ad network space, and this is amply on display here. I counted almost two dozen in a relatively small space. It is unclear to me how they compete. At the moment, many of them try to differentiate through better software and user experiences. But my sense is that those are nice features, real differentiation will come from liquidity and raw numbers of publishers and advertisers. I suspect that many of these companies were meeting with carriers as well. The operators are looking for ways to tap into ad ecosystems and developer networks. It remains to be seen how well this will work.

As with all conferences, there is also a large milieu of ‘miscellaneous’ companies selling everything from cases and bags to specialized connectivity boxes. The hit this year was “Panzer Glass” who were selling a protective screen coating for iPhones. They demonstrated this by applying a hammer to screens coated with their product. Pretty effective marketing.

Finally, there is a small number of ‘emerging’ fields – companies not typically associated with mobile, but starting to see some interest. This is best exemplified by the automotive companies. General Motors had a large space last year, and Ford showed up this year. Many other companies also displayed connected cars in their booths. Several people mentioned that this reminded them of the growing number of mattress vendors at CES – stretching the boundaries of the show.

By my count that is thirteen distinct universes, none entirely isolated, but many only tangentially related. If anything, I see this as a sign of the growing importance and maturity of the industry. What does it mean to be  ‘mobile’. As smartphones become ever more entrenched in daily lives, it seems likely that the show will continue to grow. Hopefully it will not outgrow Barcelona, the only other event space big enough in Europe is Hannover, and Hannover in March is not as much fun as Barcelona.

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