As Smartphones Become More Mainstream, Shows Like MWC Return to Their Geeky Roots

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After CES 2013 closed its doors at the beginning of January, the majority of smartphone and tablet fans relaxed, safe in the knowledge Mobile World Congress at the end of February would be a week of mobile decadence. While CES did bring with it the Sony Xperia Z, the Huawei Ascend P2 and several others; it was lacking any new releases from HTC, Samsung, Nokia and LG. Surely, then, MWC 2013 would be the place for all these companies to show off their latest wares?

Now Mobile World Congress has finished, we’re fully equipped to assess the situation, and although MWC was undoubtedly more successful – in terms of mobile devices at least – than CES, it was strangely lacking in a single, stand-out device which could be viewed as the star of the show. Now, that’s not to say there wasn’t anything good on display, far from it, as the HTC One, Sony Xperia Tablet Z and LG Optimus G Pro were all there to be fondled on the show floor. But each one had been seen before, some at their own dedicated launch events. So, does this shift away from the once packed MWC schedule indicate a decline in interest in the well-established Barcelona event, or is there another reason?

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Judging by the sea of people flowing around the massive halls of Fira Gran Via, the new-for-2013 location for MWC, the show is as popular as ever. This is not the reason, then, and the drop in high-profile smartphone launches may have more to do with the exponential rise in the popularity of smartphones themselves. Two years ago at MWC 2010, Windows Phone 7 was announced, plus the HTC Legend, HTC Desire, Sony’s Xperia X10 Mini range and Samsung’s Wave with Bada were all revealed. All great for their day, but even then the range-topping HTC Desire wouldn’t have drawn a mainstream crowd.

So what’s changed to make the public interested enough in the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S IV – two phones which have been or will be launched outside the show – to warrant a special event all to themselves? Apple’s iPhone is not only one of the prime reasons smartphones have increased in popularity – as they have become easier to use and more versatile – but it has also influenced the way its competitors promote their new hardware. For years, Apple has announced its new iPhone model (and just about every other product it sells) at a high profile gathering held close to its headquarters is California.

These events are invitation only, and are usually live-blogged by attending press unless Apple feels particularly generous and offers a live stream to the world. As anticipated in the tech community as the FA Cup final is by football fans, they’re often exciting, sometimes unpredictable, and always end with us checking our bank accounts, working out if we can afford to pre-order the next big thing.

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It’s no wonder Apple’s competitors want to emulate this, and this year has seen HTC and Samsung decide to hold dedicated launch events outside of either major tradeshows. Samsung did the same thing with the Galaxy S III in 2012 with great success, and HTC needs to draw as much attention as possible to its new HTC One, given the firm’s recent lacklustre sales performance.

These events also stop new products getting lost in the continuous stream of news coming from shows like MWC and CES. Last year, we saw many new phones announced, but almost all were overshadowed by talk of the Nokia 808 PureView, a relatively ordinary device with an extraordinary camera.

LG wanted to avoid the same fate this year, as it had a wide array of hardware to announce, but instead of holding its own event, it used the week leading up to the show to pre-announce its new phones. The L Series 2, the Optimus G Pro and the 4G LTE F Series phones were all made official well before the start of Mobile World Congress. All were there, ready and waiting to be tried out, on its stand as soon as the doors opened.

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So, does this mean large tech tradeshows are no longer relevant? No, absolutely not. Quite apart from the huge amount of business done at them – the majority of companies make deals, find new partners and drum up business there – they’re perfect for discovering technology which could find its way into the next generation of smartphones.

For example, wandering around the show floor this year revealed innovations including advancements in NFC wireless payment technology, new materials for creating stronger screens and even phones with dual screens. In a way, this “tradeshow” element is what MWC has always been, with new product announcements in the past made less for the public and more for the press and industry. Big companies now taking the decision to unveil exciting hardware outside the confines of a show like this is only logical, as the audience for such products is so much greater.

The trend is likely to continue too, as companies feel the need to outdo each other with bigger and glitzier events each year. So, the future of the tradeshow as smartphones become less geeky by the day means that events like Mobile World Congress may become even geekier. It’s good news really, as not only do those outside the industry get better access to the latest announcements, but those inside get more opportunity to bring you news of the cool emerging tech which may find its way on to a phone you’ll buy in the near future. We’d call that a win/win situation.

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