MWC 2015 – A Year of Substance

It feels like the last few years, Mobile World Congress (MWC) has been filled with vague concepts and more marketing than substance. I think there is a change in this, evident at the show. Private companies were able to point to real carrier wins or important partnering agreements. Even some of the vaguest, fluffiest technologies like the “Internet of Things” (IoT) now have some real products and real businesses hacking apart different aspects of what IoT promises.

A few months back I noted that IoT is starting to move from the frothy realm of the marketers into the sober daylight of Product Managers’ reality. At MWC I saw several signs of this trend continuing. Companies are starting to think about IoT in much more practical terms. I saw many very specific demos. These spanned the range from updates to very old concepts like connecting transportation networks to some much newer ideas like building a marketplace for data (more on this in a future post). There was also the usual sea of ‘wearables’ but as my following piece on the handset OEMs should make clear, these are pretty undifferentiated.

I was also encouraged by the progress of several private companies I have gotten to know over the years. This was the tenth year of MWC in Barcelona, I even picked up my commemorative 10 year pin. And by my count I have had close to 700 meetings at the show over the years. One of the most enjoyable parts of these for me has been the chance to get to know many private companies. Starting a company is still a very risky venture, especially in the telecom equipment space. I like speaking with private companies, and I am always gladdened when I see them making real progress. It means that the industry is healthy and things are working.

One such company is SpiderCloud. I have written about them often in the past. They have built a network box that is often called an ‘enterprise’ femto-cell, but I think this seriously understates what they have achieved. Their system is not just a small base station, it is really an entire mobile network in a box. It is targeted for installation inside large office buildings or other dense indoor settings. I will save the technical details, but they have built an impressive piece of engineering.

At the start of the show, they announced a partnership agreement with Cisco, the networking giant. SpiderCloud already has a number of carrier wins under their belts, with some very solid names. Adding Cisco as a partner is a big achievement and offers the potential to greatly expand SpiderCloud’s footprint.

The announcement is also interesting because Cisco does not really play in the mobile access space. They obviously make key pieces of telecom switching and routing gear, but they have never done much in the access space. With the SpiderCloud partnership, they now have access to base station technology for the radio access network (RAN). I would not read too much into this, but it does offer a tempting vision of a very different market. And if I were Ericsson or Huawei, I would read a lot into and be very careful about how I address that partnership.

Another interesting company who I have been meeting with for years is Apperian. Put simply, they provide systems to help companies build and deploy enterprise mobile apps. In the past few years, I have written about the slim hopes of the Mobile Device Management (MDM) space. MDM was a hot topic briefly leading to the $1 billion acquisition of AirWatch by VMWare and IPO of Mobile Iron. My concern was that MDM was a very limited set of features, many of which are either blocked or done almost as well by Apple and Android. Apperian’s approach is much broader, solving several more serious pain points for enterprises. Enterprise apps are much more complicated than IT departments realize at first. Building an app is ‘easy’, or at least straightforward, but getting those apps deployed and working across personal devices on Android and iOS becomes very complicated very quickly. Apperian helps to solve that problem.

So I was greatly encouraged by Apperian’s traction over the past year. I am not quite sure what is public, so I will skimp on the details for now, but the company has racked up some very serious customer wins. If you are building apps for your employees and partners and consultants, take a look at them.

I could go on. There were many other examples of the ‘substance’ I detected at the show, but I will save them for future posts. One common complaint I hear at trade shows nowadays is the lack of ‘innovation’. It is almost as if the rise of mobile phones, and then the even faster rise of smartphones has led us to expect a ‘disruptive revolution’ every year. When I say that out loud, I realize how untenable it sounds. We are at the point in industry evolution when disruption is overrated. What we need now is slow, steady, grinding progress. This makes trade shows seem less exciting, but execution is often more important than great ideas. And I think this was a year of progress on many fronts in that regard.

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