5G smartphones were amply on display at MWC 2019, but vendors need to make a concerted effort to showcase how 5G will actually enhance the user experience. Turning 5G from theory into practice and developing business models to drive market value are challenges to address.
Leading up to this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC), there was ample speculation about smartphones on display at the show with 5G connectivity, foldable displays, or perhaps both, bringing much needed innovation to device design. While MWC did not disappoint, there was a distinct feeling at the show that what was on offer were the first footholds in a wider world of new device innovation, rather than any semblance of the defining finished device.
The Reality of 5G Smartphones Creeps Ever Closer
Taking its cue from last year’s hype, 5G was again one of the broader smartphone themes at MWC. Aside from the expected buzz around foldable devices, notably from Huawei with its Mate X, as is often the case at MWC, the major smartphone vendors showcased a raft of new flagships, with offerings announced from Nokia, Huawei, Sony, Xiaomi, LG, and ZTE all at the fore, many of which had 5G integration. Samsung had already taken the liberty of introducing its Galaxy S10 smartphone range before MWC at its “Unpacked” event and all four new models, including a 5G version, were heavily on display on its stand.
While Samsung may have gotten the jump on its competitors as they all vie for the “5G first-to-market” tag, at the show, Huawei unveiled its foldable Mate X 5G device, which was followed swiftly by LG’s V50 ThinQ 5G, Xiaomi’s 5G version of its Mi Mix 3, and ZTE’s Axon 10 Pro 5G. These smartphones all joined the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G to complete a healthy roster of 5G devices on display at MWC, which will all soon be made commercially available.
Other vendors offering a nod to the 5G era, if not all showcasing a working device at the show, included OPPO, OnePlus, Sony, and TCL. Despite the launch of the new Xperia 1 flagship from Sony, there were no detailed plans given for 5G. However, Sony is fully aware that 5G will be essential for it to realize its full potential across all its businesses, creating a marked boost for content creation, viewing, and sharing. Holding a similar viewpoint, LG took a more novel approach to its 5G implementation as the V50 ThinQ 5G comes with an optional accessory called Dual Screen that opens up to give users a second display, offering an enhanced viewing, gaming, and multitasking experience. Moreover, LG has integrated YouTube Live into the native camera as it sees 5G as being a main catalyst for real-time streaming.
OPPO also stated that 5G would be a “game changer” for the smartphone industry, and it plans to bring its first 5G smartphone to the market in 1H 2019. Having a tie-up with Qualcomm to underpin its 5G chipsets and collaborations with operators worldwide, OPPO has been preparing extensively for 5G smartphone commercialization. OPPO launched its “5G Landing Project” with several operator partners in order to accelerate the commercialization of 5G products and services worldwide.
The odd vendor out at the show was Nokia, which, despite launching five new devices, showed little interest in 5G. Its focus is still on improving smartphone shipments and margins, so with feature phones still forming a major part of its devices launch mix, it is perhaps a little too early for the company to indulge in the higher echelons of 5G devices. 5G smartphone pricing is something that will be keenly felt by consumers at launch. It was of some surprise, therefore, when Xiaomi suggested its Mi Mix 3 5G smartphone will be available in May 2019 at a very respectable €599. Despite Xiaomi consistently working on very thin margins across its hardware, the price point was much lower than many industry observers had expected for early 5G smartphones.
The smartphone Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) were accompanied at the show by a number of component vendors, notably Qualcomm, Intel, and MediaTek, which were all hailing 2019 as the year of 5G. However, they were also keen to point out that 5G had the ability to enable more than just a new breed of smartphones. Qualcomm believes the move to 5G will enable the “invention age,” with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and analytics being developed alongside the enhanced broadband connectivity that 5G brings. At the show, MediaTek also advanced its 5G portfolio with the Helio M70 5G modem to power the rollout of 5G devices in 2020 for the sub‑6 gigahertz (GHz) spectrum.
5G Needs to Showcase More Than Enhanced Broadband
While 5G was under the spotlight at MWC, there was still much skepticism at the show. Some were claiming that nobody could definitively explain the point of 5G and what it would effectively mean for the mobile industry. Conversely, others were keen to purport 5G’s faster speeds and low latency that would trigger a wave of innovative apps and services, with gaming and content consumption at the fore. Invariably, these enhanced user experiences would be delivered first via a smartphone.
It was abundantly clear at the show that collaboration is key to the success of 5G, with handset vendors, mobile carriers, and chipset vendors all working together closely to seize the opportunity that the 5G era presents. With network vendors already steaming ahead to deliver their 5G kits, closely followed by the launch of hardware from the smartphone OEMs and chipset manufacturers, a stumbling block is the readiness of the mobile operators. Taking a look around the 5G ecosystem beyond the smartphone vendors, operators had a modest presence on the MWC exhibition floor, probably an indication that the race to be the first to launch 5G has yet to produce any significant results. Moreover, perhaps the promise of turning 5G from theory into practice and building out business models to drive value creation in the industry is proving to be far more difficult for carriers than had been expected.
But it is not the just the carriers who need to take note of this perceived difficulty. Many Android OEMs are in a rush to introduce the first 5G smartphones to market, but they should be wary of under-delivering on the user experience due mostly to initial patchy 5G coverage, poor battery performance, and limited “5G showcase” applications. Some serious work is needed by the industry to provide cogent solutions if the 5G smartphone market is not to stall, including coping with the underpinning substantial increase in Radio Frequency (RF) burden that is expected from 5G.
As a year when 5G finally arrived at MWC, it has become clear that many devices on display were the first steps taken in the market and it will be a few more years before volumes ramp up, the technologies are perfected, and there are subsequent reductions in price. A year from now, there will undoubtedly be more 5G smartphones displayed at the show from a host of vendors riding a more buoyant ecosystem of enablement. However, MWC’s ever-absent Apple is still not expected to enter the 5G smartphone market by this stage. It could, however, be argued that Apple’s rumored September 2020 iPhone 5G launch may be perfectly timed, as it will be during an optimum period when vendors should be starting to integrate 5G more forcibly into their core device portfolios. Irrespective of timing, the expected plethora of 5G smartphones to be launched over the next 18 months will need to showcase what 5G actually brings to the user experience. Clear messages about the benefits of 5G and the enablement of enriched content should be paramount if consumers are to be seduced by its attributes beyond faster broadband speed.