10 Talking Points From the Mobile World Congress

1. Wearables are evolving fast. 

Almost as visible as the new smartphones, was the Samsung Gear 2 smart watches.  There has been much talk about wearables, but this is a big step forward for a number of reasons. The device features are themselves noteworthy, for example the curved AMOLED 1.84 inch screen. But also the focus on healthcare and wellbeing is clearly taking on the market so far dominated by Fitbit and JawBone. The changeable straps provide a nod to fashion, and under the hood, it has a Tizen Operating system, which itself comes from a family tree of operating system innovation from Nokia, Intel, Samsung and the Linux foundation.

The programmability of the device will no doubt provide a slew of clever applications, which will take away the oh so onerous effort of taking your phone out to answer calls, check emails, or even do video calls. The Gear Neo 2 has a 2 MP camera and even a remote for your TV. 

It doesn’t stop there. We also saw t-shirts that can monitor heartbeats while you run, and smart gloves from Fujitsu with which you can point to things and using AR glasses, get more information about them. The Sony smartbands are certainly eye-catchinly stylish. 

But for me, the next wave of innovations will be the one to watch – when the open systems in wearable devices allow swarms of innovative developers to create entirely new ways to use wearables, in ways not even thought of yet. 

 

2. Ecosystem Conference 

Ginny Rometty, the IBM CEO, accurately called this an ‘ecosystem conference, more than a mobile conference’. Increasingly, it’s hard to separate the components. Cloud, Mobile, hardware and software, middle layer and front end tools, wearables, watchables, eatables, sensors, all the boundaries are getting blurry. Moreover, the value delivery is via the ecosystem, rather than any individual layer. 

This means that solutions thinking needs to span the ecosystem and not focus on any one layer alone. This in turn requires a number of related competencies to be brought together in one place. 

Seems like an obvious point but you’d be surprised how uncommon this common-sense is. 

 

3. Telcos in the services game

Telcos have been the perennial bridesmaids in the IP enabled world. All the value created by World Wide Web, VOIP, messaging, OTT TV and other innovations have stood on the shoulders of telecom networks, yet Telcos have seen little of the value. A part of the reason could well be that Telcos have wanted to get rewarded for being structural enablers, rather than end-service providers. 

The penny seems to have dropped, though as evidenced by the number of Telecom providers, especially in the APAC market, who have end user services built around innovative and mature smart systems. These are, importantly, not sold as technology but as services. NTT has a “Cow Birthing Service” built around monitoring body temperatures of pregnant animals, and alerting the right time for delivery. 

 

4. Old Media left behind?

Tucked between the presentation from Cisco and Shazaam, was a presentation from Bob Bakish, from Viacom. It was a very good presentation underpinned by a well thought-through content strategy, yet it felt like we were being dragged back into the past after being shown a vision of the future. 

I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while, and then it dawned on me. This was a good old-media presentation but it missed the transformation to services, analytics and interactive thinking which now characterises most successful and evolving digital media businesses of today, such as Netflix. 

 

5. Dealing with intelligent worlds 

It is no longer a big shout to suggest that the world is becoming more smart, programmable and intelligent. But perhaps our ability to deal with smarter environments is not yet developed to the extent required. This could impact privacy, security and many other areas. 

It could also make a difference to how well we’re able to extract the maximum value of our smart surroundings. Mark Zuckerberg spoke about the need to connect the whole planet, and called out the fact that many people don’t see the value of the Internet, so they don’t know why they should invest. Similarly, how many of us are really equipped to deal with a smart city or a smart environment in the optimal way? 

 

6. Yet another phone? 

Samsung switched strategies to launch the S5 at the MWC. There was also the wearables, and a few other interesting phones – the Yotaphone and the BlackPhone for starters. But there seems to be a level of fatigue with more marginal improvements. We’re going to need some truly disruptive innovation to get excited about smartphones again. 

The S5 has biometrics, the latest connectivity tools, and more megapixels than you can count on your fingers (16 to be precise). The most interesting feature of the S5 may be it’s power saving feature – when the phone is down to the last 10% energy, it has the option of switching to black and white and shutting down a lot of power consuming services, to extend the battery life by a few hours. 

 

7. Shazaam’s next trick. 

It could well be Shazaam that changes the TV advertising landscape going forward. Having solved the “what’s that song?” problem, and having turned it’s attentions to identifying television program, Shazaam is now offering a way of engaging with ads. When the app recognises the advertising, it offers ways in which you can engage with the ad – through a number of ways, over the phone. 

By ensuring that it is connected to the advertising on TV, there is a clear element of triggering the engagement. A number of questions will still need to be addressed, but by making it easier for consumers to engage, which is the problem Shazaam solves, this could be the way forward for interactive advertising. 

 

8. Innovation & Value 

There is much talk about innovation in the mobile environment in general, and especially at events like the MWC. But it’s harder to identify where the real value lies, versus where there is just an interesting app. Messaging may not be new and exciting, but continues to attract gravity defying valuations. What is innovative about mobile messaging in 2014? Yet, some 200 million (400 m if you go by Whatsapps December announcements) are using the service every month. 

The trick may be in simplicity. Whatsapp does not try to do anything apart from helping you message and talk to your friends and it doesn’t get in the way of the communication. Much like the early Twitter. The question of course is what happens now and how do you monitise this? 

Jan Koum, the founder suggested that Whatsapp will go after voice, with the same simplicity and customer focus. Who knows, may be video is next? Skype beware! 

Meanwhile other clever apps like CamMe (use a hand gesture to take better selfies) and Brewster (combine all your contacts), and Blippar (augmented reality using Google Glass and phone) made headlines. Their commercial value remains to be seen. 

 

9. Marginal innovation in payments 

I did go to the MWC hoping to get a glimpse of the future of payments. But I came back having witnessed only marginal innovations and the industry essentially shuffling it’s feet, waiting for a big move from somebody. 

That somebody might be Apple, who have over half a billion iTunes users with credit card information, an app to enable purchases through this environment (Apple Store App), about $150 bn in cash reserves, and some pending hardware patents for payment related areas. But of course this is not an MWC story, as Apple were only there in spirit. 

 

10. Architectures not clear yet 

John Chambers spoke about the critical need to get the architecture right, in the new world of digital services. The challenges is that as new technologies give rise to newer innovations and as sensors, wearables, mobile and web technologies collide to create new ideas, it’s quite hard to figure out what this architecture should be. Clearly something scalable, modular, service oriented, and capable of serving and receiving information from this array of end points is a must. And to bind all of this to some enterprise grade system of record. Easier said than done, methinks. 

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The Coming Payments Battlespace

The Penny Drops:  

Recently I ordered something online from the website of a start up which sells RFID tagged tiles which you can stick onto your luggage, your keys (or as my colleague suggests, your children) to track and find them, on a map. When I came to the payments page, however, I was redirected – not to a bank, or even a Paypal, but to Amazon. And I was able to use my Amazon details to pay for this third party tool. 
 
Think about this for a minute. There are a few businesses out there who routinely take payments off you and probably have built up a fair amount of information about you, apart from having your credit card details and the technology to enable hassle-free (read:one-click) purchases. Apple is one such, as is Amazon. 
 
It’s relatively simple for these behemoths to extend their payments facilities to 3rd parties, as a paid utility, and thereby garner even more information about customers and what they’re buying. This can be tightly coupled, a la Apple (currently), where you need to sell through Apple, or loosely coupled, as in the case of Amazon, where you sell through your own website, but just connect to Amazon for the payment. 
 
The Coming Battle 
 
Banks have so far held onto the high ground of payments simply because it would be impossible for telecoms or tech giants to get into the payments space without help from financial institutions. But as these new entrants to payments mature and grow in confidence, the Banks’ competitive position weakens. With a raft of new businesses also becoming banks, including Telcos, Retailers and others, this opens up the door for a new kind of banking business which is much more familiar with payments and customer’s shopping behaviours. 
 
In sort, traditional banks will face competition for the payments business with both new banks as well as non-traditional players. Who will win? Probably the player who can provide consumers the most simple, intuitive interface across devices, backed by an efficient and reliable system that scales well. 
 
The Task At Hand 
 
Therefore, the immediate challenge for Banks is to get this new and elegant payments system road tested and to iron out all the wrinkles in the technology, user experience, service design and analytics. 
 
There may not be clear winners just yet, whether it be the question of devices, form factors, technology choices or user experiences. But those who get onto the learning curve faster, are increasing their chances of getting it right earlier than others. 
 
After all, even as Banks learn to get their head around the technology and models of online and mobile payments, players like Amazon, Paypal and others are learning to become payment providers. 
 
And as is oft repeated in this age of change and disruption, it’s not that the big eat the small, but that the fast eat the slow.